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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Gambia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Gambia, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 1 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Gambia is controlled by a military government, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), which seized power in a coup d'etat in 1994. The AFPRC deposed the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Captain Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, remained Head of State throughout 1995. Under Jammeh, the main decisionmaking organization is the military-controlled AFPRC. It rules by decree and declares its decrees exempt from legal challenge.

The Gambia National Army (GNA) reports to the Minister of Defense. The police report to the Minister of Interior. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA), established in June by government decree, reports directly to the AFPRC but is otherwise autonomous. The AFPRC and others were responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses.

The Gambia's population of just over 1 million consists largely of subsistence farmers growing rice, millet, maize, and groundnuts (peanuts), the country's primary export crop. The private sector, led by reexporting, fisheries, horticulture, and tourism, contracted continuously since the 1994 coup. Cuts in international economic assistance have worsened the economic decline.

The Government's poor human rights record worsened during the year as the coup leaders continued to commit widespread and repeated human rights abuses. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. The AFPRC also arrested and detained senior government officials and members of the press. It held detainees incommunicado and did not acknowledge their detentions, detained armed forces and police personnel without charge, banned political parties, curbed political activities, publications, and other communications, intimidated the press, dissolved local governments, and revoked rights to travel and transfer funds or assets for senior officials of the former Jawara government. The courts have traditionally been subject to a certain degree of executive influence. AFPRC decrees have abrogated due process and allowed the Government to search, seize, and detain without warrant or legal proceedings. The AFPRC ordered the arbitrary arrest, firing, and retirement of government officials and civil service employees loyal to the previous government. Security forces have tortured detainees. Discrimination against women persists. While health professionals have focused greater attention on the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM), this practice is widespread and entrenched.

The AFPRC shortened the transition schedule for return to a democratic, civilian government from 4 years to 2 years because of pressure from the international community, concerns over the collapse of tourism and other business activity, and in response to expressions of Gambian political views. It repeatedly denied its intention to stay in power and, although delayed, has proceeded with the transition timetable. The National Consultative Commission has completed its work. Despite harsh press intimidation, a relatively free, outspoken press still exists.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Former Minister of Interior Sadibou Haidara, arrested in an alleged countercoup January 27, died June 3 in prison. Although the AFPRC attributed his death to preexisting high blood pressure, Haidara's death is widely believed to have resulted from intentional mistreatment by prison authorities. While an autopsy was performed, the results were not made public.

On June 23, Finance Minister Ousman Koro-Ceesay's charred remains were found in his burned vehicle with part of his skull missing. He had attended Chairman Jammeh's departure from Yundum International Airport earlier that day. As with the Haidara case, no results of any investigations were made public. It is widely believed that Ceesay's death was a politically motivated killing by the AFPRC.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. In May two GNA soldiers, allegedly under the orders of the AFPRC, attempted to abduct Lamin Waa Juwara, former independent Niamina Minister of Parliament. They were unsuccessful.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

While the AFPRC did not suspend provisions of the Constitution prohibiting torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, it ignored these provisions in its treatment of former ministers and military and police detainees.

Former AFPRC Vice Chairman Sabally, arrested in the alleged January countercoup, was detained without visitation rights at Mile 2 prison. He was widely believed to have been tortured after his arrest, and credible reports indicate he has lost some of the use of his hands because of torture by electric shock.

Conditions at Mile 2 prison are reported to be austere, overcrowded, and lacking in medical facilities. Prisoners are locked in their cells for more than 20 hours each day. Other reports indicate that the AFPRC assigned military guards to augment the corrections staff at the prison, and there were credible reports of malnourishment, illness, and beatings of military and security detainees. In March military police surrounded the prison because of reports of demonstrations against poor food and living conditions, and long detention without trial. Women are housed separately.

There was one death while under detention (see Section 1.a.).

In June the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the Mile 2 facility and reported that 33 of the original 58 detainees known to the ICRC were still imprisoned. According to the ICRC, at least 7 of these detainees are political prisoners and the other 25 were released. Since the ICRC's visit, only sporadic prison information became available. August press reports list a total of 50 detained military personnel. The ICRC visited again in October and reported that conditions were adequate.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The AFPRC frequently and arbitrarily arrested military and police personnel, civil servants, parastatal staff, and media representatives. In June the AFPRC declared by decree that the NIA would have the power to search, seize, detain, or arrest any individual or property without due process. In October the AFPRC issued a decree allowing a 90-day detention without charge and without writ of habeas corpus which has retroactive force.

After promulgation of Decree 57, incidents of targeted searches and investigations increased. The AFPRC primarily targeted nongovernmental organizations and members of the press for investigation and detention. In July six employees of the Daily Observer newspaper were interrogated and released by NIA officers in reference to an advertisement in the newspaper. The NIA suspected that the advertisement was a coded message to trigger a mercenary takeover.

The regime subjected prominent civilians in and out of government to lengthy surprise interrogations in uncomfortable circumstances, often lasting overnight, and detained some officials for extended periods. For example, vice president of the Gambian Bar Association Ousainou Darbo was detained incommunicado from October 15 through November 6, when he was released unconditionally. The authorities generally did not permit families, reporters, or other private citizens to visit military and police detainees. They did occasionally permit exceptional visits by detainees' spouses after direct petitions to the Vice Chairman of the AFPRC.

At least 14 of those detained during the July 1994 coup remained in custody at year's end. The AFPRC has not provided an accounting of current detainees. Some of those detained after the attempted countercoup in November 1993 were granted amnesty; the authorities brought charges against others. Along with the military and police personnel in long-term detention, authorities detained an unknown number of additional people for shorter periods, ranging from hours to 26 days.

In the alleged countercoup attempt in January, the AFPRC arrested and detained an additional group of opposition figures, including Sabally and Haidara. Sabally's trial ended in December; he was convicted on two charges and sentenced to a total of 9 years' imprisonment, to be served concurrently (see Section 1.c).

There was another wave of detentions in October. Many of those detained had ties to the Peoples Progressive Party. The AFPRC has not formally exiled its opponents. However, three senior officials of the former government, President Jawara, Vice President Sabally, and secretary general Janha, remain abroad under explicit threat of arrest and detention if they return. Other officials who were outside the country at the time of the coup are at similar risk.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the courts are traditionally responsive to executive branch pressure. The judicial system comprises a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (based in London), the Supreme Court of The Gambia, The Gambia Court of Appeal, and the magistrate courts (one in each of the five divisions plus one in Banjul and one in Kanifing). Village chiefs preside over local courts at the village level. The AFPRC claimed that judicial provisions of the Constitution remained in effect, but it exempted its own decrees from court challenge and ignored due process with respect to arrest, detention, and trial.

In early 1995, detention review tribunals comprised of a lawyer, a police officer, and a private citizen completed recommendations on the cases of military detainees. In most cases, the tribunal did not find enough to merit to continue the detentions. Tribunal action was advisory only. The AFPRC could have ordered the indefinite detention of military and police officers from the 1994 coup and countercoup.

Since coming to power, the AFPRC granted amnesty to 38 detained soldiers from the 1994 coup. Seven others were sentenced to 9 years' imprisonment in June for a November 1994 countercoup attempt.

The AFPRC appointed a number of commissions to investigate individuals and organizations suspected of corruption. These commissions have powers similar to that of a grand jury, including the authority to imprison and fine for contempt, and to imprison or demand bond from individuals considered likely to abscond.

The AFPRC seized over 6,000 tons of imported rice owned by a Gambian business consortium. While the rice had all appropriate health documents, it was declared "unfit for human consumption," and summarily dumped into the ocean. The AFPRC neither waited for nor acknowledged judicial decisionmaking authority in the issue.

Despite these incidents, the judicial system remains structurally intact and recognizes customary, Shari'a, and general law. Customary law covers marriage and divorce for non-Muslims, inheritance, land tenure, tribal and clan leadership, and all other traditional and social relations. Shari'a law is observed primarily in Muslim marriage and divorce matters. Under Shari'a, women receive half of what men receive in inheritance. General law, following the English model, applies to felonies, misdemeanors in urban areas, and the formal business sector. Trials are public, and defendants have the right to an attorney at their own cost.

The trial of former AFPRC Vice Chairman Sabally was conducted in a military court with a civilian judge at Fajara military barracks. He was charged with three counts of treason. This trial was closed to the public and all reports came from the army press office (see Section 1.d.)

Three journalists from The Point newspaper were arrested in March and charged with inciting public alarm. After a trial lasting 6 months, all three were acquitted.

Although total numbers are not available, most prisoners detained under the AFPRC's anticorruption campaign, or for security reasons, are political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Existing constitutional safeguards against arbitrary search and seizure were abrogated as part of Decree 45. AFPRC priorities in security matters and corruption investigations override all constitutional safeguards. Police seized private documents and property without due process and placed armed guards at homes and other properties suspected of having been acquired with embezzled or misappropriated funds. The AFPRC froze accounts of people under suspicion and prohibited by decree the transfer of their property. It denied persons under house arrest access to international telephone service. Security officials are believed to monitor and record telephone communications.

Because of the ban on political parties and activity, membership in political organizations is forbidden.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press but in practice the AFPRC significantly restricted these freedoms. AFPRC Decree 11 prohibits political activities of all kinds, including possession and distribution of political literature or engaging in political discourse by any other means.

The AFPRC attempts to require diplomats to secure government approval for all public statements. The AFPRC used summary arrest, interrogation, and detention, to intimidate and silence journalists who published articles which it deemed inaccurate or sensitive. Six employees of the Daily Observer were arrested and questioned in reference to an advertisement in June. Fear and government activity forced all the newspapers to exercise self-censorship. English, French, and other foreign newspapers and magazines are available.

The NIA began harassing two journalists from The Point following their acquittal in September (see Section 1.e.). It prevented journalist Pap Saine from leaving the country and instructed immigration officials to seize Saine's passport and investigate his nationality. It later allowed Saine to leave. Non-Gambian journalists were also a target of NIA intimidation. Journalist Brima Ernest, a native of Sierra Leone, was forced into hiding for fear of deportation. He has since fled the country. Sierra Leonean journalist Cherno Ceesay was arrested for articles he wrote about alleged police beatings. He was deported.

Although the AFPRC called for analysis and criticism of its government, it has on occasion carried out reprisals upon individuals who publicly criticized the Government. Although there is no television station, the country receives broadcasts from Senegal. Private consumers also use satellite systems, but these systems are rare. Creation of the country's first station, which will be a parastatal organization, is in progress.

Broadcasts from the one government and two private radio stations normally did not reach listeners in the eastern part of the country. Private radio stations simulcast news provided by Radio Gambia, the government station. Senegalese and international radio broadcasts attract wide audiences.

There is no university but a university extension program was established in November, and classes were scheduled to begin in 1996. In October a teacher was questioned by the NIA regarding some remarks he had made to a student about the AFPRC.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

AFPRC Decree Four bans political organizations and political meetings of any kind. Other kinds of assembly open to the public require police permits, which are generally easy to obtain. The Government discouraged people from gathering in large groups.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution, which was partially suspended or modified after the AFPRC took power, and traditional laws provide for freedom of religion. Adherents of all faiths are free to worship without government restriction.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for freedom of movement. Freedom of movement for ordinary citizens remained unimpeded, but the authorities prohibited those under investigation for corruption or security charges from leaving the country. All civil servants and government officials must obtain permission to leave the country. Journalists have, in addition, been required to produce travel clearances. Former ministers were not allowed to leave The Gambia.

In October there was a large influx of refugees from the Casamance region of Senegal. The Gambia continues to host approximately 2,000 Senegalese refugees, and the AFPRC continued to work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Gambian Red Cross, and other organizations in dealing with refugees. The Government does not force repatriation of those with a valid claim to refugee status.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Political parties are banned, and the AFPRC exercises total power. The first decree issued by the AFPRC suspended legislative and executive sections of the Constitution, including provisions for Parliament and elections. The AFPRC has promised to hold elections by July 1996.

At one point this year, four of the 13 ministers in the AFPRC Executive Council (cabinet) were women. The AFPRC has appointed more women to government posts than the previous government.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The AFPRC indicated that international human rights concerns are not appropriate for those suspected of corruption or involvement in subversion, since they are considered criminals. There are two organizations whose primary mandate is the promotion of human rights--the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) and the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. ISHR has conducted training in democratic rights and civic education. In October it denounced the AFPRC decrees and called for their abrogation.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination against persons based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status.


Domestic violence, including spouse abuse, is occasionally reported but its occurrence is reportedly not extensive. Police respond if cases are reported, and prosecute offenders if citizens file complaints. The media cover cases on trial.

Shari'a law usually applies in divorce and inheritance matters. Marriages are usually arranged, and polygyny is practiced. Women normally receive a lower proportion of assets distributed through inheritance than do male relatives.

Although four women were appointed to the AFPRC executive council, women face extensive discrimination in education and employment. Females constitute about one-third of primary school students and roughly one-fourth of high school students.

Employment in the formal sector is open to women at the same salary rates as men. No statutory discrimination exists in other kinds of employment, although women are generally employed in endeavors such as food vending or subsistence farming.


The Government does not mandate compulsory education and secondary opportunities are limited. The care and welfare of children in distress is considered primarily a family responsibility. Authorities intervene if cases of abuse or maltreatment are brought to their attention.

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is widespread and entrenched. Up to 60 percent of females may have undergone this procedure in early youth. Rural women strongly support the practice of female circumcision. In 1993 village women drove a prominent female FGM opponent from an upcountry village for speaking against the custom. The AFPRC has yet to take a position on FGM.

Early in the year, the AFPRC deported to Senegal most of the Almudo population, rumored to be as large as 350 students and teachers. The situation of the Almudos, mostly Senegalese young male Koranic students aged 8 to 12 placed in the care of Koranic teachers, has elicited significant concern. These children are expected to beg for their food and clothing as well as to support their teachers.

People with Disabilities

There are no statutes or regulations requiring accessibility for the disabled. No legal discrimination against the physically disabled exists in employment, education, or other state services. Severely disabled individuals subsist primarily through private charity. Less severely disabled persons are fully accepted in society and encounter no discrimination in employment for which they are physically capable.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Labor law remains unmodified by the AFPRC regime. The Labor Act of 1990 applies to all workers, except civil servants. The Act specifies that workers are free to form associations, including trade unions, and provides for their registration with the Government. It specifically prohibits police officers and military personnel, as well as other civil service employees, from forming unions or striking. About 20 percent of the work force is employed in the modern wage sector, where unions are most active. Roughly 30,000 workers are union members, about 10 percent of the work force.

The Gambian Worker's Confederation and the Gambian Workers' Union are the two main independent and competing umbrella organizations. Both are recognized by the Government, but relations with the AFPRC were not tested.

The Labor Act authorizes strikes but requires that unions give the Commissioner of Labor 14 days' written notice before beginning an industrial action (28 days for essential services). It prohibits retribution against strikers who comply with the law regulating strikes. Upon application by an employer to the Supreme Court, the court may prohibit industrial action that is ruled to be in pursuit of a political objective. The court may also forbid action judged to be in breach of a collectively agreed procedure for settlement of industrial disputes, but unions may appeal the decision. Because of these provisions and the weakness of unions, few strikes occur.

Unions may affiliate internationally, and there are no restrictions on union members' participation in international labor activities. The country, applied in June to join the International Labor Organization (ILO). It has been accepted in principle, but must make modifications to its labor and employment laws. Furthermore, because The Gambia is currently under military, not democratic, rule, it cannot be admitted to ILO membership.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Act allows workers to organize and bargain collectively. Although trade unions are small and fragmented, collective bargaining does take place. Each recognized union has guidelines for its activities specified by the appropriate industrial council established and empowered by the Labor Act. Union members' wages exceed legal minimums and are determined by collective bargaining, arbitration, or market forces. The Labor Department registers agreements reached between unions and management after insuring that the agreements are in compliance with labor law. No denial of registration has been reported. The Act also sets minimum contract standards for hiring, training, terms of employment, wages, and termination of employment. The Act provides that contracts may not prohibit union membership. Employers may not fire or discriminate against members of registered unions engaged in legal union activities.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The criminal code prohibits compulsory labor, and it is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The statutory minimum age for employment is 18 years. There is no compulsory education, and because of limited secondary school openings, most children complete formal education by age 14 and then begin work. Employee labor cards, which include a person's age, are registered with the Labor Commissioner, but enforcement inspections rarely take place. Child labor protection does not extend to youth performing customary chores on family farms or engaged in petty trading.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Minimum wages and working hours are established by law through six joint Industrial Councils--Commerce, Artisans, Transport, Port Operations, Agriculture, and Fisheries.

Labor, management, and Government are represented on these councils. The lowest minimum wage is about $1.35 (14 Dalasi) per day for unskilled labor. This minimum wage is not adequate to sustain a suitable standard of living for a worker and family. Only 20 percent of the labor force, those in the formal economic sector, are covered by the minimum wage law. The majority of workers are privately or self-employed, often in agriculture. Most citizens do not live on a single worker's earnings but share resources within extended families.

The basic legal workweek is 48 hours within a period not to exceed 6 consecutive days. A half-hour lunch break is mandated. In the private sector, the workweek includes four 8-hour work days and 2 half-days (Friday and Saturday). Government employees are entitled to 1 month's paid annual leave after 1 year of service.

Private sector employees receive between 14 and 30 days of paid annual leave, depending on length of service.

The Labor Act specifies safety equipment that an employer must provide to employees working in designated occupations. The Factory Act authorizes the Ministry of Labor to regulate factory health and safety, accident prevention, and dangerous trades and to appoint inspectors to ensure compliance with safety standards. Enforcement is spotty owing to insufficient and inadequately trained staff. Workers may refuse to work in dangerous situations and may demand protective equipment and clothing for hazardous workplaces.

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