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MFWA sues government at ECOWAS Court over "disappeared" journalist

(MFWA/IFEX) - The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria has issued a hearing notice for a suit filed against the Republic of Gambia by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) on behalf of a "disappeared" Gambian journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, reporter of pro-government Banjul-based "Daily Observer" newspaper.

This follows an application filed on behalf of the journalist by MFWA through its Journalists' Legal Defence Programme. The application seeks an order from the sub-regional court to compel the government of President Yahya Jammeh to immediately release Chief Manneh and compensate him adequately.

The court has fixed July 10, 2007 for the hearing. The date coincides with the eve of the first anniversary of Manneh's arrest and incarceration. Colleagues of Manneh witnessed his arrest by two plain-clothed personnel of the notorious political police, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), at the "Daily Observer's" premises on July 11, 2006. But the government and police claim they do not know the whereabouts of Manneh. Simply, he is "disappeared".

The writ, filed by Nigerian human rights lawyer Femi Falana, a member of the MFWA Legal Defence Network, said that the arrest of Manneh without warrant and his continual detention is unlawful and a violation of his right as guaranteed under Articles 4, 5 and 7 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. It also violates Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights which guarantees his right to personal liberty.

The Gambian government has blatantly refused several requests from human rights groups to either release or charge Manneh if he has committed any offence.

In a reaction to the continuous demands for the release of Manneh, the Gambia Police Force, after eight months of the journalist's disappearance, on 21 February 2007 officially denied ever arresting him and urged the general public to furnish it with any "relevant" information about him. MFWA sources have indicated earlier that, after his arrest, Manneh was detained variously at the NIA Headquarters, Mile Two Central Prison, Kartong Police Station, Sibanor Police Station, Kuntaur Police Station, and then at Fatoto Police Station, where he was last spotted after 188 days incommunicado.

Gambian media practitioners have been subjected to unlawful arrests, detentions, murder, and closure of newspapers resulting in several journalists escaping into exile. Those who have chosen to remain in the country practice self-censorship as a means of protection.

The MFWA and the Network of African Freedom of Expression Organizations (NAFEO) have launched a campaign to end the impunity and attacks on free expression in the Gambia, and have published a 63-page dossier of press freedom abuses since President Jammeh came to power in 1994.

The MFWA is a regional independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Accra. It was founded in 1997 to defend and promote the rights and freedom of the media and all forms of expression.

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