I will kill anyone who wants to destabilise this country. If you think that you can collaborate with so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it.
- President Yahya Jammeh BBC News, September 2009
The smallest and most densely populated country on the African continent, the Gambia is a popular tourist destination. Yet, until recently, beneath the idyllic surface there was a dark undercurrent where paramilitaries preyed on those who spoke out against former President Yahya Jammeh and have killed, tortured and disappeared journalists and opposition activists. Calls from the local and international communities for an end to the impunity for these abuses have met with government intransigence.
The United Democratic Party of President-elect Adama Barrow. Barrow defeated Yahya Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction in a national election on 2 December 2016.
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union, United Nations
IFEX members working in the country:
West African Journalists Association
Media Foundation for West Africa | mfwa.org
Press Freedom Ranking:
Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2016: 145 out of 178
A regime of threats, arrests, torture, disappearances and deaths
In 1994 a group of officers, led by a young Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, seized power in a bloodless coup. He has held power ever since despite four coup attempts. In November 2011 he was elected to a fourth term amid reports of widespread intimidation. Demonstrations calling for electoral reform in the run up to December 2016 presidential elections were met with a harsh response. In April 2016 several opposition party members were arrested during a peaceful protest. Two of them were to die in prison; Solo Sandeng soon after his arrest in April, and Ebrima Solo Kurumah in August 2016, leading to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to call for a full investigation into their deaths.
'The Gambian government tolerates no dissent and commits serious human rights violations' said the Media Foundation of West Africa in July 2016, pointing to the steady toll of arrests, disappearance, torture and deaths in custody of journalists and opposition figures throughout Jammeh's more than two decades' rule. Many of these crimes have been attributed to a paramilitary group known as the 'Jungulers', an elite unit who take their orders directly from the President, as described in a comprehensive 2015 report by Human Rights Watch.
The situation for LGBTI people in the Gambia is also acute. They are targets of hate speech, not least from former President Jammeh himself, who in May 2015 said publicly that he would 'slit the throats' of gay people in the Gambia. The penalty for homosexuality, already a crime carrying a 14-year sentence, was increased to life imprisonment for 'aggravated homosexuality' in November 2014. Within weeks, state forces had arrested eight people, who were held in secret locales and allegedly tortured. Many more were harassed and threatened.
Journalists and the media systematically targeted
ARTICLE 19 encapsulated the situation for freedom of expression in Gambia in June 2015 as 'The systematic targeting of human rights defenders, civil society and journalists by the national intelligence agency, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture...'which '...sustains a climate of fear'. Journalists have been murdered and arrested, and more than 100 have gone into exile.
High profile cases include:
• Deyda Hydara editor of The Point, shot dead in 2004, allegedly by Jungulers.
• Musa Saidykhan, editor of The Independent newspaper, arrested in 2006. Held for 22 days during which time he suffered acute torture.
• 'Chief' Ebrima Manneh, went missing after being arrested by NIA officers in 2006. His whereabouts remain unknown.
• Alhagie Abdoulie Ceesay a radio journalist, arrested in 2015 and tried for sedition. Reportedly severely tortured.
Article 25 of the Gambia's constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but in practice this right was widely flouted under Jammeh. Sedition, defamation and dissemination of false information are all criminal offences and in recent years the media climate has grown increasingly harsh. The Information and Communications Act was revised in 2013 to introduce a 15-year jail term for the use of the internet to spread such information. The same year, the Criminal Code was revised increasing penalties for giving 'false information to public servants' from six months to five years imprisonment. Additionally, the Newspaper Law demands large financial payments to secure media registration on the one hand, and heavy penalties for not registering on the other, severely impacting media diversity. Harassment of the press and government interference has led many journalists to resort to working from abroad, delivering news via the web. In turn the Jammeh government banned and blocked access to foreign sites, leaving Gambians' access to news sources extremely limited.
International calls to end impunity for perpetrators ignored
No officer is known to have been prosecuted for human rights abuses. Plans to set up a National Human Rights Commission have yet to materialise. Interventions from international bodies have been consistently ignored.
Among them are rulings by the Economic Community of Economic States (ECOWAS), of which the Gambia is a member. In 2011 it ruled that the Gambian government had failed to investigate the death of journalist Deyda Hydara properly, ordering $50,000 in reparations to Hydara's family as well as their legal costs. In 2010, it demanded that journalist Musa Saidykhan be awarded $200,000 damages for the torture he suffered. It also ruled that the family of disappeared journalist Ebrima Manneh be paid $US100,000 compensation.
Similarly resolutions from the African Commission on Human and People's Rights have been disregarded and the Gambia has not submitted reports on its implementation of the Commission's charter for over 20 years, despite its headquarters being based in the Gambian capital, Banjul.
The United Nations has also been repeatedly snubbed. Appeals from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights for investigations into deaths in custody were met with the demand to 'desist from interfering in the internal domestic affairs of the country'. In November 2014, a visit to the Gambia by the UN special rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions was hampered by 'serious challenges regarding unrestricted access and an overriding atmosphere of apprehension and even fear from many who engaged with us'.
The climate for free speech in the Gambia was toxic under Jammeh. It remains to be seen whether the new government will prioritise an end to impunity for those who carried out abuses. Yet there are human rights defenders in the Gambia and outside who have refused to be intimidated into silence and who, with international support, will continue to work to change this.
More Resources & Information
Musa Saidykhan and Ebrima Manneh: Justice Subverted by the StateAfrica IFEX 17 October 2016
In 2006, Gambian journalists Musa Saidykhan and Ebrima Manneh were separately arrested and detained by state agents in Banjul, Gambia. Saidykhan was subjected to brutal torture, while Manneh disappeared with little trace. The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice has issued judgements against the Gambia in both cases, finding the state guilty of criminally violating their rights and owing them recompense. To date, the Gambia has yet to comply with either ruling.
State of Fear: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and KillingsAfrica Human Rights Watch 15 September 2015
This report provides an overview of the human rights situation in the country since President Jammeh came to power in 1994. It documents human rights abuses by state security forces and pro-government paramilitaries, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, unlawful killing, and the role of President Jammeh in facilitating these abuses.