Authorities in Gambia must free dozens of political prisoners and end the brutal crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly ahead of elections later this year or face suspension from the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), Amnesty International said in a new report published today.
Dangerous to Dissent: human rights under threat in Gambia, launched two days before ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government meet in Dakar and six months before Gambia’s presidential elections, outlines the brutal repression of opposition demonstrations in April and May 2016. Dozens of peaceful protesters and bystanders were beaten by police and arrested and 51 people, including the leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and several members of the executive, are awaiting trial. At least 36 more people remain detained without charge and one man Solo Sandeng, the UDP National Organising Secretary, died in custody after having been tortured.
“Gambia’s elections are just six months away and yet opposition members are arrested and beaten, journalists are muzzled, and civil society muted,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“Gambia has a long and brutal history of repression of critical voices, and demonstrators such as Solo Sandeng have paid a high price for peaceful protest.”
Nogoi Njie, a businesswoman arrested on 14 April and currently detained, described in an affidavit filed at the High Court how she herself was tortured at the NIA. She explained how she was beaten with hose pipes and batons by men clothed in black hoods and black gloves while water was poured over her. No thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into Sandeng’s death has taken place, despite appeals by the United Nations, ECOWAS, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, European Union and United States. On 29 May President Jammeh told magazine Jeune Afrique that “People die in custody or during interrogations, it’s really common. This time, there is only one dead and they want investigations? No one can tell me what to do in my country.”
Other recent cases highlighted in the report include the death in custody in February 2016 of union leader Sheriff Dibba, the arrest in October 2015 and enforced disappearance of Imam Sawaneh after he submitted a petition to the President, and the arrest and trial of independent journalist Alhagie Ceesay in July 2015 for sharing a photo on Whatsapp.
The report outlines patterns of violations since the last Presidential elections in November 2011, which ECOWAS refused to monitor due to “intimidation, an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power, the lack of neutrality of state and para-statal institutions, and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.” Since that time new laws have been introduced to further restrict the right to freedom of expression, such as laws repressing online dissent, and three media outlets have been closed on five different occasions. Dozens of journalists have fled the country because of persecution.
Gambian authorities have long used the Public Order Act to prohibit gatherings of opposition parties, although a period of relaxation between April 2015 and April 2016 was observed before the most recent crackdown. Political opponents have also been arrested and tortured, including three members of the UDP imprisoned since 2013.
Civil society organizations, human rights defenders and even government officials who are perceived to dissent have been arbitrarily arrested and harassed, while the widespread practice and perception of surveillance adds to a climate of fear in which the majority of people dare not openly speak out against the government.
A civil society activist told Amnesty International:
“You don’t feel safe anywhere, even in your home. You don’t trust even your maids or drivers. You can pay someone $10 and they will give information. In public spaces you don’t speak about sensitive things or in public transport. You are trying to protect yourself and your family and want to keep safe.”
The report documents how Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) regularly prints out telephone records of people without any judicial authorisation or oversight, and maintains a system of informants, to report on the activities of those under surveillance.
A journalist in exile told Amnesty International: “You don’t know who is going to report you. You don’t know who is behind you. You don’t know who is paid by the NIA to be an informant.”