Republic of the Gambia

Head of state and government: Yahya Jammeh
Capital: Banjul
Population: 1.2 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice

Freedom of expression and association continued to be restricted. Journalists were harassed, detained briefly and threatened with a new law that would restrict their activities even further. Members of opposition parties also faced harassment and arrest. There were reports of severe ill-treatment of prisoners.

Background

After the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) seized power in a military coup in 1994, AI criticized the suspension of the previous constitution, as well as the new constitution that reintroduced the death penalty and allowed for impunity and derogations of human rights. The former chair of the AFPRC, Colonel Yahya Jammeh, retired from the military and was elected president in controversial elections in September 1996.

Decrees were passed banning politicians in the former government from political activity and granting total immunity from prosecution to those who held power from the military coup in 1994 until the return to civilian rule. These decrees remained in force at the end of 1999.

In the years following the 1994 coup, the Gambian government's international isolation was gradually overcome. Several governments and intergovernmental organizations resumed bilateral aid, although the country's human rights record did not improve.

In February 1999, Gambia sent 120 soldiers to Guinea-Bissau to join a West African peace-keeping force there. The peace-keeping force left Guinea-Bissau in June following a change of government in May.

Press freedom restricted

Police and the security forces continued to intimidate journalists with arbitrary detentions and threats of violence.

The government proposed legislation to create a National Media Commission with judicial powers to fine and jail journalists for six months or more if they refused to be a witness, or if they interrupted, insulted or otherwise disobeyed the Commission. The Commission could also seize a reporter's information or goods in connection with its inquiries. No appeal against the Commission's decision would be allowed. Under the proposed law, no media organization or journalist could work unless licensed by the Commission. AI believed that all these restrictions unduly limited freedom of expression. The National Assembly still had not debated the proposed law by the end of 1999.

Until March 1999, immigration officers had conducted open surveillance of the largest selling independent daily newspaper, The Daily Observer . For almost a year, the identity papers of those entering the newspaper's premises had been checked, in a policy of intimidation aimed at non-Gambian journalists working there. Many foreign journalists were expelled in previous years. A new proprietor, reportedly close to the government, bought the newspaper in May and immediately dismissed the deputy managing director, Theophilus George, and the news editor, Demba Jawo, who is also president of the Gambia Press Union. The dismissals were alleged to be connected to past publication of articles critical of government policy.

The radio station Citizen fm remained closed throughout 1999. The government had ordered it to cease operations in February 1998, apparently because of its broadcasts about the government's National Intelligence Agency, which has been connected with serious and persistent human rights violations. The authorities called the broadcasts "irresponsible journalism" and refused to renew the radio station's licence. An appeal was still pending before the High Court at the end of 1999. The government appeared to delay the case, so prolonging the radio station's closure: government lawyers failed to turn up in court and a new magistrate was appointed to hear the case.

  • In July, less than three weeks after it opened, the government ordered The Independent newspaper to close, citing deficiencies in registration, although its papers were in fact in order. The closure appeared to be linked to an editorial condemning alleged human rights violations since the 1994 military coup. The newspaper reopened after about one week. In July and August agents of the National Intelligence Agency briefly detained three staff members of the newspaper: the editor-in-chief, Baba Galleh Jallow; the managing editor, Yorro Alagi Jallow; and a reporter, N.*. Daffeh. At the end of December, the police Serious Crimes Unit arrested the three men and another reporter, Jalali Walli, on charges of libelling President Jammeh, in connection with an article speculating that President Jammeh had married for a third time.
  • In September, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Observer, Sheriff Bojang, and a senior reporter, Alieu Badara Sow, were briefly detained and interrogated by National Intelligence Agency officers. They had published reports that a Senegalese helicopter had circled the birthplace of President Jammeh, exchanging gunfire with the presidential guard.

The Brikama Mosque trial

In February the four remaining defendants charged in June 1998 with conspiracy to commit riot and damage to a building in the town of Brikama were acquitted. Originally, the National Intelligence Agency arrested and held incommunicado 10 prisoners of conscience – including members of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Imam of Brikama, Alhaji Karamo Touray. The arrests were in connection with alleged attempts to destroy a wall being erected around the mosque, reportedly by a pro-government youth group trying to prevent the Imam from speaking about political issues. At least one of the detainees was allegedly tortured in custody. After almost nine months of trial, the presiding magistrate discharged the defendants. The state filed an appeal against the judgment.

Opposition parties

Restrictions on opposition political activity continued, despite the 1997 lifting of the ban on multi-party politics. Under a presidential decree, all individuals who had held the office of President, Vice-President or government minister prior to the military coup were prohibited from engaging in political activities. In October President Jammeh dissolved the July 22 Movement, an unofficial organization supporting the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party, and its youth wing, the National Youth Action Group. Members of the July 22 Movement were alleged to have harassed and intimidated opposition party members, journalists and members of the public with impunity.

  • Opposition politician Syngle Nyassi was held for 26 days in incommunicado detention, during which he said he had been denied food and beaten. Syngle Nyassi had been held without charge, in unacknowledged detention, by the National Intelligence Agency from 25 May, despite a high court order for his release.
  • Ousainou Darboe, leader of the UDP, accused the government in May of arresting and harassing members of his party. He alleged that three party activists had been arrested, and others held for questioning, in connection with his visit to their village.

Torture

AI received reports that inmates at State Central Prison (Mile 2) were severely beaten and ill-treated by prison officers. Conditions at the prison amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment with denial of medical attention, insufficient food and unhygienic conditions.

Women's rights

Discrimination and violence against women persisted and, in particular, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) remained widespread in rural areas. President Jammeh in January defended the practice of FGM and threatened the lives of those campaigning against the practice, saying: "There is no guarantee that after delivering their speeches they [those opposing FGM] will return to their homes." The President later revised his earlier statements on the issue. In September, the National Assembly ratified a policy to grant women equal access to education, health, appropriate technology and decision-making.

Death penalty

Four men were sentenced to death in June 1997 by the High Court of the Gambia on charges of treason for trying to overthrow the government in an armed attack on Farafenni military camp in November 1996. The convictions were quashed on appeal in October 1997, but the state appealed and the men remained in custody in 1999.

Three other men were sentenced to death by the High Court in 1999 for the 1997 armed attack on Kartong military post. Two of the accused men claimed that they were tortured during police interrogations.

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