U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Gambia

THE GAMBIA Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997   The Gambia is controlled by President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, the military leadership that joined him in a coup d'etat, and other members of the cabinet formed subsequently. Jammeh is the former chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) that seized power in a coup d'etat in 1994, deposing the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Jammeh became President following controversial elections in September that observers considered neither free nor fair. Following his election, Jammeh dissolved the AFPRC and declared the Cabinet to be the sole ruling body until the National Assembly is elected in January 1997. President Jammeh and his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), strongly backed by the armed forces, continue to dominate the Government and to repress most genuine opposition forces. The judiciary remained sensitive to government pressure. The Gambian National Army (GNA) reports to the Minister of Defense (who is now the President). The police report to the Minister of Interior. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA), established in 1995 by government decree, reports directly to the Head of State but is otherwise autonomous. The AFPRC Government and some members of the security forces committed 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 after the 1994 coup, but appears to be rebounding. Cuts in international economic assistance coupled with high population growth have worsened the economic decline. The Government's poor human rights record continued as it committed widespread and repeated human rights abuses, but it improved somewhat during the year. Although the Government repealed a decree banning all political activities, in practice citizens still do not have an effective opportunity to change their government, although parliamentary opposition is becoming increasingly significant. Security forces beat and abused detainees. The AFPRC 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 and specific individuals from political activity; curbed political activities, publications, and other communications; violently disrupted opposition campaign trips; and intimidated the press. The rights to travel and the right to transfer funds or assets for senior officials of the former Jawara government remained restricted in several cases. Prison conditions remained poor, and the courts remained subject to executive influence. AFPRC decrees 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. Discrimination against women persists. While health professionals have focused greater attention on the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM), the practice is widespread and entrenched. The AFPRC took some steps toward the formation of democratic institutions, but still retained control. A new Constitution defining most aspects of the Second Republic was approved in a national referendum in August and came into effect in January 1997 with the inauguration of the President. However, restrictive security decrees remain in effect. Given harsh press intimidation, the independent press has shown caution and practices self-censorship.

Respect for Human Rights

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings. There were no developments in the 1995 deaths of Saidbou Haidara or Finance Minister Ousman Koro-Ceesay. The opposition used the lack of investigation in these cases to criticize the Government during the presidential campaign.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The AFPRC did not suspend the previous Constitution's prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment and the new Constitution also forbids such practice. However, there were reports by detainees that agents of the State used torture or the threat of torture in interrogating them. In January one of the detainees on trial for sedition testified that soldiers beat him in an attempt to obtain a confession from him. A woman on trial for sedition said that she was threatened with electric shock when she failed to answer questions regarding clandestine publications alleged to have been in her possession. At the height of the September presidential election campaign, soldiers dragged 100 to 200 members of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) from their vehicles headed to Banjul. The soldiers ripped off the UDP members' party-labeled shirts, fired shots over their heads, confiscated their public address system, and burned UDP election materials. The opposition party members were forced to go to NIA headquarters where they were harassed and beaten, stripped of their clothing, and forced to run from the building. One senior member of the UDP leadership who refused to run was beaten with a rifle butt and suffered a broken hand. Conditions at Mile 2 and Janjanbureh prisons remained poor. Mile 2 prison was reported to be austere, overcrowded, and lacking in medical facilities. Prisoners are locked in their cells for over 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. Women are housed separately. Conditions in one local jail were reportedly unsanitary and overcrowded. Inmates slept on cement benches or the floor with no blankets. They were served two small meals a day, one consisting only of rice. There was one water tap in the cell area, but often no water. The Government permitted no visits by international human rights groups. The African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies submitted numerous informal requests throughout the year to inspect prison conditions and the status of detainees, but its requests were repeatedly thwarted by the Government.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The sections of the Constitution that protect against arbitrary arrest and detention were superseded by various decrees of the AFPRC. While there are provisions in the new Constitution that will provide protections, the restrictive security decrees that limited the previous Constitution remain in force. The AFPRC frequently and arbitrarily arrested military and police personnel, civil servants, parastatal staff, and media representatives. In 1995 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, and that the Minister of Interior could order a 90-day detention without charge and not subject to writ of habeas corpus. In January the AFPRC issued Decree 66, extending indefinitely the period the Minister of Interior may hold a person without charge. The new Constitution does not supersede these decrees, which remain in force. 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. Member of Parliament Lamin Waa Juwara was reported missing in March. Inquiries by family members were met with claims that the Government knew nothing about his detention or whereabouts. Senior government officials have privately acknowledged to a foreign diplomat that the Government is holding Juwara, but it has not publicly acknowledged his detention or charged him with any offense. In January and in July, the Supreme Court rejected writ of habeas corpus applications for Housainou Njie and Momodou Cadi Cham, held in detention for political reasons since October 1995. The Court maintained that Decrees 57 and 66 give the Government the right to detain prisoners indefinitely. They were unconditionally released on November 4. In January two visiting Senegalese journalists were seized and harassed by the NIA. They were later released only after repeatedly explaining their presence in the country. A student and freelance reporter was arrested in February and detained for 7 days by the NIA, reportedly for submissions he made to the British Broadcasting Corporation Focus on Africa program. The Government brought charges against all independent newspapers in March for failing to make annual returns (information regarding ownership of the paper and a signed bond). The newspapers said that the returns had been made, and the charges were subsequently dropped. In April the NIA detained reporter S.B. Danso for 24 hours reportedly in reaction to a story he wrote about Mrs. Tuti Faal Jammeh, wife of the Head of State. In June the NIA arrested and interrogated journalist Ansumana Badjie in connection with "negative reporting." He subsequently left the country fearing persecution. In May journalists Alieu Badara Sowe and Bruce Asemota were arrested at their respective offices. They were held incommunicado for 16 days and then released. Both Badara and Sowe had written articles reporting fraud and dismissals in the national police department. While in detention, police demanded that they reveal their sources. Newspaper stories stated that Asemota was beaten. Prior to the September 26 presidential election, opposition supporters were arrested and allegedly intimidated by the security and armed forces (see Section 1.c.). Following the election, there were several reports of opposition supporters being arrested and detained for allegedly making critical remarks about the government party. In September the public relations officer for the opposition UDP disappeared following the party's launching ceremony. His mother said that men claiming to be NIA officers came to her residence looking for him. He appeared in Dakar a week later, claiming he had to flee his country because he was harassed and intimidated by the NIA. The authorities generally did not permit families, independent observers, or other private citizens to visit military, police, or civilian detainees. Family members of detainees were subjected to intimidation and harassment by security forces, who made verbal threats and unannounced searches. In July two wives of detainees were followed home by NIA agents after meeting with a local human rights organization. Their houses were immediately searched and they were threatened with detention. The AFPRC did not provide an accounting of detainees. Since the dissolution of the AFPRC, the President and the Cabinet govern. The decision regarding arrests and detentions lies with the executive branch. A journalist and a local nongovernmental organization named 29 military and police personnel whom they claimed have been arrested and detained since July 22, 1994. Of these 11 were released unconditionally on October 29. The reasons for these arrests and detentions are largely unknown. Along with military, police personnel, and civilians in long-term detention, the authorities detained an unknown number of additional people for shorter periods, ranging from hours to days. The majority of the 35 people arrested in October 1995, allegedly for attempting to organize a demonstration, were released by the end of 1996. The remainder reportedly have been charged with sedition. In August the AFPRC issued a decree banning a number of former political parties and their members from political activity for 30 years (see Section 3). The Head of State pardoned 60 prisoners. In January four soldiers who had been detained since the 1994 military coup were granted amnesty. In February 20 prisoners, some who were political detainees from 1995, were pardoned. In July 13 political detainees were released. In October 11 security detainees were released, followed by 12 political detainees in November. The government did not exile opponents. However, three senior officials of the former government, President Jawara, Vice President Sabally, and Secretary General Janha, remain outside the country under 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, the Court of Appeal, and the magistrate courts (one in each of the five divisions plus one in Banjul and one in Kanifing). The new Constitution provides for a reconfiguration of the courts in which a Supreme Court will replace the Privy Council as the ultimate court of appeal. Village chiefs preside over local courts at the village level. The AFPRC claimed that the judicial provisions of the Constitution remained in effect, but exempted its own decrees from court challenge and ignored due process with respect to arrest, detention, and trial. The AFPRC appointed a number of commissions to investigate individuals and organizations suspected of corruption. These commissions have powers similar to 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 commission findings recommended that the Government ban certain former politicians from running for political office for 5 to 20 years. 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. Although total numbers are not available, most prisoners detained under the AFPRC's anticorruption campaign, or for security reasons, were political detainees. The bulk of those detained were released by year's end.

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

Existing Constitutional safeguards against arbitrary search were abrogated as part of Decree 45. AFPRC priorities in security matters and corruption investigations override all Constitutional safeguards. Despite the new Constitution, Decree 45 remains in force. Police seized private property and documents 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. A number of instances remain unresolved. Observers assume that the Government monitors citizens engaged in activity that it deems objectionable. In the past, surveillance included monitoring of telephones and mail. The AFPRC also denied persons under house arrest access to international telephone service. Opposition leader Ousainou Darboe fled his home and took refuge in the Senegalese embassy for 4 days following the presidential elections. The NIA posted agents outside Darboe's house, and Darboe claimed that the NIA made repeated death threats and harassed him. NIA agents were later withdrawn, and Darboe resumed his political activity.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The old and new Constitutions provide for freedom of speech and the press but in practice the AFPRC significantly restricted these freedoms. Until August political activities of all kinds, including possession and distribution of political literature or engaging in political discourse by any other means, was prohibited. Although Decree 89, promulgated in August, lifted some prohibitions on political activity, an atmosphere of fear remained regarding political action and relatively free exercise of political rights began only in December with the opening of the legislative electoral campaign. The AFPRC attempted to require diplomats to secure government approval for all public statements. The AFPRC used government decrees, summary arrest, interrogation, and detention to intimidate and silence journalists and newspapers that published articles that it deemed inaccurate or sensitive (see Section 1.d.). In March the AFPRC enacted Decrees 70 and 71, which required all newspapers to post a $10,000 bond or cease publication. While publishers posted the bonds within the allotted time frame, the Ministry of Justice rejected the bonds, claiming that the newspapers did not meet other conditions, not initially stipulated in the decree. As a result, nongovernmental newspapers ceased publication for 1 week until the Minister of Justice accepted the bonds. Fear of reprisals and government action forced all newspapers to exercise self-censorship. English, French, and other foreign newspapers and magazines are available. Although still independent, the nongovernment press grew cautious as the four major independent dailies practiced increasing self-censorship. Following the September presidential election, there was some lessening of restrictions on the press with greater visibility for opposition views and more criticism of government policies. Although the AFPRC called for analysis and criticism of the way in which it governed, it frequently carried out reprisals against individuals who publicly criticized the Government. A government-sponsored television station, The Gambia's first, began broadcasting nationwide in September. During the presidential election campaign, the programming consisted mostly of government propaganda. The country also receives broadcasts from Senegal. Wealthy private consumers also use satellite systems. Radio broadcasts from one government and two private stations normally did not reach listeners in the eastern part of the country until power was increased late in the year. Private radio stations simulcast news provided by Radio Gambia, the government station. Senegalese and international radio broadcasts attract wide audiences. During the presidential elections, the government party dominated the public media. The Provisional Independent Electoral Commission reported that the Head of State had more than 1,400 minutes of air time, while the leading opposition candidate had only 60 minutes. There is no university, but a university extension program completed its first academic year in August. There are no reports of any government restrictions on academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

AFPRC decrees banned political organizations and political meetings of any kind throughout most of the year. While Decree 89 lifted the ban on political activities in August, the AFPRC's subsequent banning from politics of three major opposition political parties, all former presidents, vice presidents, and ministers, and other politicians; and its imposition of stiff penalties of life imprisonment or a $100,000 fine considerably restricted political activity and involvement.

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. The new Constitution provides for freedom of religion.

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

The new 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. Journalists and government officials have been required to produce travel clearances. Former ministers were not allowed to leave the country. In June the Head of State instructed divisional commissioners not to issue passports to young people until after September, when the farming season ended. The Government cooperates with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government provides first asylum and it did so for approximately 1,500 persons from Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1996, according to UNHCR. The Government works with the UNHCR in approving cases: the UNHCR identifies those that qualify for asylum or refugee status and the Government approves. There were no reports of persons forced to return to countries in which they feared persecution. The Gambia continues to host approximately 2,000 Senegalese refugees from the Casamance region, and the AFPRC continued to work with the UNHCR, the Gambian Red Cross, and other organizations in dealing with refugees. Additionally, there are hundreds of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone. While there were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status, in November the Government reevaluated the status of many of the refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone, following an attack on a military barracks near the Senegalese border.

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

Citizens do not have an effective right to change their government, although parliamentary opposition is becoming increasingly significant. The first decree issued by the AFPRC in 1994 suspended legislative and executive sections of the Constitution, including provisions for Parliament and elections. Although the Government repealed a decree banning all political activities, in practice citizens still do not have any effective means by which to change their government. Decree 89 allowed the resumption of political activities with serious limitations on specific organizations and individuals. The Decree banned all persons who held the offices of president, vice president, and minister since 1965 from involvement in politics for 30 years from the date of the AFPRC's coup d'etat. Banned under the same conditions were the People's Progressive Party, the National Convention Party, and the Gambia Peoples Party. The penalty for violation of the decree is a fine of $100,000 or possible life imprisonment. The Decree was widely interpreted as a tactic by the AFPRC to eliminate political opponents in the presidential elections. Citizens attempted to exercise the right to change their government through a democratic process in presidential elections held in September. However, the few international observers that were present noted serious problems in the electoral process. Foreign governments condemned the election as not free and fair primarily because of restrictions imposed by the Government prior to the election. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and there are no obstacles to the participation of women in government. Four of the 16 ministers in the AFPRC Executive Council (cabinet) were women. The AFPRC appointed more women to government positions than the previous government. The new Constitution will expand the voting rights of women at the local level.

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

There are few organizations in The Gambia whose mandate permits human rights monitoring. The AFPRC promulgated Decree 81 requiring nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) to register with a National Advisory Council, to be appointed by the Government. This Council is to have the authority to deny, suspend, or cancel any NGO's right to operate, including international NGO's. The AFPRC believes it inappropriate for international human rights observers to express concern for those whom the Government suspects of corruption or involvement in subversion, since the Government considers them criminals. There are two organizations whose primary mandate is the promotion of human rights – the International Society for Human Rights (ISHRA) and the African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS). Both ISHRA and ACDHRS have conducted training in democratic rights and civic education. ACDHRS made numerous calls throughout the year for the Government to provide information on the judicial status of detainees, account for alleged disappearances and beatings at the hands of security forces, and release those held without charge. No visits of prisons were granted to international human rights organizations and inquiries as to the status of prisoners were often ignored or denied.

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

The old and new Constitutions prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status.


Domestic violence, including abuse, is occasionally reported, but its occurrence is not believed to be extensive. Police respond if cases are reported, and prosecute offenders if citizens file complaints. The media cover cases on trial. Shari'a law is usually applied in divorce and inheritance. Marriages are usually arranged, and polygyny is practiced. Women normally receive a lower proportion of assets distributed through inheritance than do male relatives. 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. Women face extensive discrimination in education and employment but not at the hands of government. Families generally school male children before female children. Females constitute about one-third of primary school students and roughly one-fourth of high school students.


The Government does not mandate compulsory education and opportunities for secondary education are limited. The care and welfare of children in distress is considered primarily a family responsibility. Authorities intervene when cases of abuse or mistreatment 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. Reports place the number of women having undergone FGM anywhere from 60 to 90 percent. Seven of the 9 ethnic groups practice FGM at ages varying from shortly after birth until 18 years old. Although a newspaper article in August alleged female circumcision was a means to prevent AIDS, a subsequent article in the Government's newspaper said that "the Government backs the eradication of female circumcision". The Government, however, has not implemented legislation against FGM and, in the absence of legislation, the judiciary is not prepared to address the problem.

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 individuals 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 remained 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. 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 1995 to join the International Labor Organization. It has been accepted in principle, but must make modifications to its labor and employment laws.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Act of 1990 allows workers to organize and bargain collectively. Although trade unions are small and fragmented, collective bargaining takes 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 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 the Government are represented on these councils. The lowest minimum wage is about $1.35 (14 dalasis) 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 30-minute lunch break is mandated. In the private sector, the workweek includes 4 8-hour work days and 2 4-hour work 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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