Authorities in Gambia must free dozens of political prisoners and end the brutal crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly ahead of elections later this year or face suspension from the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), Amnesty International said in a new report published today.
Dangerous to Dissent: human rights under threat in Gambia, launched two days before ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government meet in Dakar and six months before Gambia’s presidential elections, outlines the brutal repression of opposition demonstrations in April and May 2016. Dozens of peaceful protesters and bystanders were beaten by police and arrested and 51 people, including the leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and several members of the executive, are awaiting trial. At least 36 more people remain detained without charge and one man Solo Sandeng, the UDP National Organising Secretary, died in custody after having been tortured.
“Gambia’s elections are just six months away and yet opposition members are arrested and beaten, journalists are muzzled, and civil society muted,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“Gambia has a long and brutal history of repression of critical voices, and demonstrators such as Solo Sandeng have paid a high price for peaceful protest.”
Nogoi Njie, a businesswoman arrested on 14 April and currently detained, described in an affidavit filed at the High Court how she herself was tortured at the NIA. She explained how she was beaten with hose pipes and batons by men clothed in black hoods and black gloves while water was poured over her.
No thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into Sandeng’s death has taken place, despite appeals by the United Nations, ECOWAS, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, European Union and United States.
On 29 May President Jammeh told magazine Jeune Afrique that “People die in custody or during interrogations, it’s really common. This time, there is only one dead and they want investigations? No one can tell me what to do in my country.”
Other recent cases highlighted in the report include the death in custody in February 2016 of union leader Sheriff Dibba, the arrest in October 2015 and enforced disappearance of Imam Sawaneh after he submitted a petition to the President, and the arrest and trial of independent journalist Alhagie Ceesay in July 2015 for sharing a photo on Whatsapp.
The report outlines patterns of violations since the last Presidential elections in November 2011, which ECOWAS refused to monitor due to “intimidation, an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power, the lack of neutrality of state and para-statal institutions, and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.”
Since that time new laws have been introduced to further restrict the right to freedom of expression, such as laws repressing online dissent, and three media outlets have been closed on five different occasions. Dozens of journalists have fled the country because of persecution. Gambian authorities have long used the Public Order Act to prohibit gatherings of opposition parties, although a period of relaxation between April 2015 and April 2016 was observed before the most recent crackdown.
Political opponents have also been arrested and tortured, including three members of the UDP imprisoned since 2013. Civil society organizations, human rights defenders and even government officials who are perceived to dissent have been arbitrarily arrested and harassed, while the widespread practice and perception of surveillance adds to a climate of fear in which the majority of people dare not openly speak out against the government.
A civil society activist told Amnesty International: “You don’t feel safe anywhere, even in your home. You don’t trust even your maids or drivers. You can pay someone $10 and they will give information. In public spaces you don’t speak about sensitive things or in public transport. You are trying to protect yourself and your family and want to keep safe.”
The report documents how Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) regularly prints out telephone records of people without any judicial authorisation or oversight, and maintains a system of informants, to report on the activities of those under surveillance.
A journalist in exile told Amnesty International: “You don’t know who is going to report you. You don’t know who is behind you. You don’t know who is paid by the NIA to be an informant.”
Amnesty International calls on the international community to consider stronger measures if Gambia does not make significant progress towards meeting its human rights obligations under international law. In particular, Amnesty International is calling ECOWAS – whose leaders meet for a Summit on 4 June in Dakar – to take action to ensure that its own rules are respected and fully observed.
In addition to a Commission of Inquiry into the recent repression of opposition protests, Amnesty International is calling for ECOWAS to consider the possible suspension of Gambia if no progress on human rights is made. Amnesty International’s report highlights how Gambia is in contravention of its treaties it has signed as a member of regional body ECOWAS.
These include its failure to effectively implement and observe ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which demands full respect for the right to freedom of expression, and its refusal to implement three legally-binding judgements by the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice relating to the torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan, the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh, and failure to investigate the murder of journalist Deyda Heydara.
“If ECOWAS is serious about being a community of states that respect and promote the human rights of their people, it can no longer remain silent as one of its members so flagrantly disregards its treaty obligations”, said Alioune Tine.
“ECOWAS should speak out on the deplorable situation in the country and engage with the Gambian authorities to secure the release of political prisoners, the repeal of repressive laws and to ensure judgements of the regional Court are fully enforced. If the Gambian government refuses to comply, ECOWAS should consider suspension until Gambia’s obligations are met.
In December 2016, Gambia holds Presidential elections amid serious concerns about the ability of opposition leaders, journalists, human rights defenders, civil society organizations and voters to express themselves freely and without fear of reprisal.
ECOWAS refused to monitor 2011 Presidential election due to “intimidation, an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power, the lack of neutrality of state and para-statal institutions, and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.”
According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), President Jammeh won the 2011 election with 72% of the votes with Lawyer Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP) coming second with 17% of the votes. The voter turnout was 83%.
If ECOWAS is serious about being a community of states that respect and promote the human rights of their people, it can no longer remain silent as one of its members so flagrantly disregards its treaty obligations
Between January 2015 and May 2016, Amnesty International researchers interviewed 127 individuals, including victims and eyewitnesses of human rights violations, relatives of victims, UN and INGO representatives, diplomats, lawyers, human rights defenders, representatives of civil society organizations, journalists, opposition members, academics, former members of security forces and sources from telecommunications companies.
Relevant desk research was also undertaken, such as review of media reports, UN and civil society reports, court documents and video footage. Amnesty International wrote to the President of Gambia on 2 May 2016, copying relevant government Ministries, requesting an official response to the concerns raised in this report. No response was received despite repeated follow up.