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Gambian government releases imam held for comments on death penalty

The Gambian government on 11 May 2013 released a renowned Muslim Cleric and a Human Rights Defender - Imam Baba Leigh - after he was arrested and detained on 3 December 2012.

Imam Baba Leigh was detained incommunicado for five months and seven days for condemning the execution of nine death row inmates by the Yayha Jammeh-led government, describing the act as inimical to Islamic teachings and precepts. He was neither charged nor granted access to his family and lawyer.

Since his detention, international and regional organisations, including the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), have waged series of interventions for his release fearing that he may suffer the same fate as some others who have also been detained in the same fashion, such as Chief Ebrima Manneh.

The MFWA, for example, issued an alert on the arrest and detention of the imam and followed up with an appeal to the Gambian government to release him or charge him to court. The foundation was also in the process of launching an elaborate campaign to secure his release when fortunately he was freed. We therefore welcome his release and we are happy that the government of The Gambia has finally yielded to the call by both regional and international organisations for the release of the imam.

However the MFWA is displeased with and condemns the intolerance of freedom of expression by the Yahya Jammeh-led government. For instance Dr. Njogu Bah, the Minister of Presidential Affairs, Secretary General and Head of Civil Service, while speaking at a gathering on the day of the imam's release, issued a stern warning to religious leaders to desist from commenting on issues that involve politics: "... Imams should discuss religious matters when they are at their religious gatherings, but when you want to comment on politics, you should form your own political party," meanwhile Chapter IV of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia guarantees all Gambian citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression.

MFWA believes in the importance of freedom of expression in promoting human and democratic rights and depriving citizens of this right is tantamount to subjecting them to tyranny and arbitrariness of government.

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