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Regional court orders release of journalist missing since July 2006 arrest

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders welcomes a regional court ruling ordering Gambia to release Chief Ebrima Manneh, a reporter who was arrested by the National Intelligence Agency on 7 July 2006 and has been missing ever since. The ruling, issued on 5 June 2008 by the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is the first of its kind concerning a journalist.

The press freedom organisation is outraged by the way the Gambian authorities have behaved in this case, above all their refusal to cooperate with the court and the probability that they will take no action in response to its historic ruling.

"This decision is a victory for those who have been fighting for years against the impunity with which the Gambian authorities have repeatedly violated human rights," Reporters Without Borders said. "But we fear for the life of Manneh, one of the victims of a brutal and intolerant regime, and we fear that this victory for the rule of law could be quickly marred by President Yahya Jammeh's contempt for justice and by the awful reality of what may have happened."

In its ruling, issued in response to a petition by the Media Foundation for West Africa, a regional organisation based in the Ghanian capital of Accra, the Abuja-based court also ordered the government to pay US$100,000 (approx. 63,000 euros) in damages.

The opposition tri-weekly "Foroyaa" reported in January 2007 that Manneh was being held in a police station in Fatoto, a small town 400 km east of the capital. A witness who was inside Mile Two prison told Reporters Without Borders that Manneh was transferred from there to a Banjul hospital, in very poor condition, in July 2007. He has not been seen since and according to this witness, whose account is credible, he died in detention.

Manneh, who worked for the privately-owned, pro-government "Daily Observer" newspaper, was arrested by NIA agents in his office five days after the end of an African Union summit that was held in the Gambian capital Banjul on 1-2 July 2006. The reasons for his arrest were unknown, but several journalists working for the independent press were arrested around the time for allegedly trying to disrupt the summit.

Founded in 1991 and consisting of seven independent judges, the ECOWAS court has since 2005 been empowered to hear complaints from any citizen of a member state about alleged violations of the community's agreements, decisions, treaties or conventions.

Updates the Chief Ebrima Manneh case:

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