Gambia: Arrests, media closures as deadline nears
The government of President Yahya Jammeh, defeated in Gambia’s December presidential election, has arbitrarily arrested opposition sympathizers and closed three independent radio stations in the past week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. Jammeh is required under Gambia’s constitution to cede power to president-elect Adama Barrow by January 19, 2017.
Since December 31, intelligence agents have arrested and briefly detained at least six people for wearing or selling t-shirts bearing the logo of the #Gambiahasdecided movement, which has called for Jammeh to respect the election results and step down. Several senior members of the movement have fled Gambia after receiving credible threats from alleged National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officers.
On January 1, intelligence agents forcibly closed three private radio stations, depriving Gambians of independent sources of information during this critical period.
It’s at times like this that free expression is most crucial
“The targeting of the #Gambiahasdecided movement and the closure of private radio stations threaten the rights of Gambians to express their opposition to Jammeh’s attempt to stay in power,” said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s at times like this that free expression is most crucial.”
Jammeh publicly conceded defeat the day after the December 1 election, but then rejected the results on December 9, criticizing what he called the “treacherous” Independent Election Commission (IEC) for its lack of independence.
Gambian security forces on December 13 evicted Alieu Momarr Njai, the commission chairman, and his staff from their headquarters. Njai subsequently told Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that he feared for his safety, and on December 30 he left Gambia to seek refuge abroad.
Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), on December 13 filed a challenge to the election results in the Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court has no permanent associate judges, and so hearing the case would require Jammeh to appoint new justices, the Gambian Bar Association has said this appeal is “fundamentally tainted.”
Jammeh’s refusal to accept the election results has been widely condemned internationally, including by the United Nations Security Council, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On December 17, ECOWAS said that when Jammeh’s term ends on January 19, Barrow “must be sworn in” and promised to “take all necessary actions” to enforce the election results.
Sources in Gambia described to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International how intelligence agents detained two men, Alpha Sey and Muhammed Kuyateh, wearing #Gambiahasdecided t-shirts on the evening of December 31.
One witness said five men in civilian clothes forced Sey into a white pickup truck. “They asked to have a word with him and, after a brief conversation, they just pushed him into the car,” the witness said. “Sey was the only one wearing a #Gambiahasdecided t-shirt, and I heard him say, ‘There’s no need for me to get in the car, I can just take it off.’ But they forced him in anyway.”
Another witness described how on December 31 men in civilian clothes forced Kuyateh into a vehicle in Bakoteh, a suburb of Banjul, apparently for wearing a #Gambiahasdecided t-shirt. Kuyateh and Sey were held incommunicado at NIA headquarters, then released on bail on January 3.
Intelligence officers detained three store managers selling #Gambiahasdecided merchandise in the Westfield area of Serrekunda on the evening of December 31. Ebrima Sambou, Mamie Serreh, and Isatou Jallow told Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that the intelligence officers came to their shops and confiscated t-shirts and other materials featuring the text #Gambiahasdecided or graphics supportive of president-elect Barrow or the opposition coalition.
They were then taken to the intelligence agency headquarters in Banjul, where they were questioned about the suppliers of this merchandise, and released a few hours later.
The store merchandise has not been returned. Serreh said that before she was released, an intelligence officer told her, “Anything you say about this, it will come back to you.” The wife of another of the store managers left Gambia soon after his release, fearing for her safety.
Intelligence officers also reportedly detained a coalition supporter, Wandifa Kanyi, for selling t-shirts in Serrekunda on January 2. Kanyi was released on January 3.
Two founding members of the #Gambiahasdecided movement, Salieu Taal and Raffi Diab, fled Gambia on December 31 after receiving what they believe was credible information of their imminent detention by the intelligence agency. The agency has a long track record of arbitrarily arresting opposition activists, many of whom were tortured and sometimes killed while in agency custody.
Taal, the movement’s chair, said that NIA officers nearly intercepted him outside his house on December 31. “I believe Jammeh is trying to send a message, to stop us from resisting his attempt to stay in power,” he told Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. “But we won’t be intimidated.”
On January 1, intelligence agents forced three private radio stations, Teranga FM, Hilltop Radio and Afri Radio, to go off air. Although Afri Radio was reopened again on January 3, it is not currently airing news-related material.
Given the government’s control of state television and radio, private radio stations provide an important outlet for Gambians to access dissenting views and opinions, although the security forces’ history of arresting and intimidating journalists have caused many to self-censor. Teranga FM and Hilltop Radio were two stations that discussed diverse political news in local languages.
The Gambian authorities must send a clear message that human rights abuses, including by members of the security forces, will not be tolerated and that those responsible for abuses during the transition will be adequately investigated and prosecuted
Emil Touray, president of the Gambia Press Union, told Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that the radio closures, “denied Gambians several essential media outlets during a crucial phase in the country’s history.” Teranga FM has been closed three times in recent years and the station's managing director, Alhagie Ceesay, was arrested in July 2015, beaten and tortured at the NIA headquarters and then charged with sedition. He escaped from custody and fled abroad in April 2016.
As the deadline for Jammeh to leave office and transfer power nears, the Gambian authorities and security forces should respect and protect the rights of all Gambians to freely and peacefully express their political views and opinions, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. Private radio stations should be free to operate without government interference or fear of reprisals.
“The risk of a crackdown against independent and critical voices will only increase as calls for Jammeh to step down intensify prior to the January 19 deadline,” said Sabrina Mahtani, West Africa Researcher at Amnesty International.
“The Gambian authorities must send a clear message that human rights abuses, including by members of the security forces, will not be tolerated and that those responsible for abuses during the transition will be adequately investigated and prosecuted.”