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Dissenters worry as Gambia presidency set to change

The state of emergency declared by outgoing President Jammeh raises fears of further repression against opposition ahead of the January 19 inauguration of president-elect Adama Barrow. Many Gambians have fled the country out of concerns for their security.

Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate Barrow's election victory in Banjul, Gambia, 2 2016
Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate Barrow's election victory in Banjul, Gambia, 2 2016

REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 18 January 2017.

President Yahya Jammeh's declared state of emergency in Gambia provides no justification for a crackdown on peaceful dissent around the January 19, 2017, deadline for the new government to take office, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.

Since January 15, security forces loyal to President Jammeh have arbitrarily detained at least five officers and enlisted men suspected of opposing Jammeh's bid to remain in office. Since Jammeh rejected the December 1, 2016, election results on December 9, Gambian authorities have arbitrarily arrested opposition sympathizers and closed four independent radio stations. The state of emergency raises fears of further repression against opposition supporters around the planned January 19 inauguration of president-elect Adama Barrow. Many Gambians have fled the country out of concerns for their security.

“Respect for human rights must not be a casualty of the current political crisis,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International's West and Central Africa deputy director. “The declared state of emergency must not be used as a pretext to crack down on peaceful dissent.”

Jammeh and Gambia's National Assembly, which his party controls, on January 17 declared a 90-day state of emergency. If authorized by the National Assembly, this would empower Jammeh to suspend certain basic due process rights, including the prohibition on detaining individuals without charge.

In announcing the state of emergency on state television, Jammeh said that “civil liberties are to be fully respected” but that “acts intended to disturb public order and peace” were banned.

Several Gambian youth organizers told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that they anticipated Gambians would take to the streets on January 19 to celebrate Barrow's inauguration. “We're not scared anymore,” one said. “We just want this to be over.” One Gambian activist who said that intelligence officers detained and beat him on January 10, said that they warned him, “If you try to do anything on January 19, we will crush you like bedbugs.”

Since January 15, authorities have detained and held incommunicado at least five members of the armed forces – including Capt. Babucarr Bah, Capt. Demba Baldeh, and Lt. Col. Hena Sambou – for supporting or planning to support Barrow. Sources said the soldiers are believed to be detained at the National Intelligence Agency and have had no contact with family members.

The arrests contradict an executive order announced by Jammeh on January 10 that there would be “no arrests” until January 31.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has announced that it is preparing a military force led by Senegal and Nigeria for possible intervention if Barrow is prevented from assuming the presidency. Should an ECOWAS intervention occur, all measures need to be taken to ensure the protection of civilians and respect for human rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.

“The protection of human rights should be at the core of any solution to Gambia's political crisis,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If ECOWAS deploys military force, all sides will need to ensure the safety of civilians.”

Background

President Jammeh publicly conceded defeat the day after the December 1 election, but then rejected the results on December 9. His refusal to accept the election results has been widely condemned internationally, including by the United Nations Security Council, the African Union, and ECOWAS.

On January 13, the African Union stated that it would cease to recognize Jammeh as the legitimate president of Gambia on January 19, and warned him of “serious consequences” should his action lead to “political disorder” or “human rights disaster.” Barrow is currently in neighboring Senegal for protection although plans are still under way for him to be sworn in as president on January 19

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