The Gambia – a favoured, West African, holiday sunshine destination for many Scots – is now the bloodbath of Africa. Nine people have been summarily executed in recent weeks with the remaining 38 in the country’s ‘death row’ expected to be shot soon.
Since 1981, the Gambia has been abolitionist in practice and among more than two thirds of states worldwide, which have abolished the death penalty in practice or in law.
President Yahya Jammeh said publicly during recent Eid celebrations that he would: ‘rid the country of all criminals’ by ‘mid-September.’
Many of the people facing the death penalty still have legal processes pending – such as appeals. But the country’s legal system is now widely considered to be in disarray with lawyers, judges and other legal officials being removed at the whim of the President.
Members of the Campaign for Human Rights in the Gambia discussed this ‘sickening’ issue with officials in the Scottish Government on Thursday 13 September.
Said Campaign Chairman Arthur West: ‘The human rights situation in the Gambia is deteriorating fast. Amnesty International issued a report on enforced disappearances, torture and extra judicial killings in 2008. Last year they updated that with a ‘Climate of Fear’ report showing that the Gambia was not observing its international human rights obligations. These executions dramatically step up the erosion of human rights. We have brought this to the notice of the Scottish Government and are urging that they do all they can to make their concerns known and to prevent further executions.’
The bodies of those executed have not been released to families. Neither the people executed nor their families were given warning of their final hour.
More than 20 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) have signed a motion condemning the nine executions and urging the UK Government and wider international community to ‘seek a resolution at the UN General Assembly condemning the use of the death penalty and all human rights abuses in the Gambia and to consider that aid, trade, tourism and diplomacy all have a role to play in putting pressure on the Gambian Government to end its abuse of human rights.’
The sponsor of the parliamentary motion, MSP Patrick Harvie, said: ‘The death penalty is a gross violation of basic human rights wherever it is used. But in the case of the Gambia, the background is one of political oppression, unfair trials, torture and censorship. It`s vital that the international community opposes this brutal regime and supports those Gambians who are bravely speaking out against the authorities there.’
Arthur West, Chairman of the Campaign said: ‘Our campaign is grateful to Patrick Harvie MSP and the other MSPs who have supported this motion highlighting the worrying human rights situation in the Gambia now. We are particularly pleased that the motion highlights that aid, trade, tourism and diplomacy all have a role to play in putting pressure on the Gambian Government to end its abuse of human rights.’
President Jammeh came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994 when he was an army lieutenant. He has remained in power through three elections. The last – in November 2011 – was held in conditions ‘not conducive for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls,’ according to the Economic Community of West African States ( ECOWAS) Opposition parties were permitted only 11 days to campaign. Some of their leaders had been imprisoned beforehand. President Jammeh has total power over the media with almost all tv coverage being of his speeches and actions. Independent radio stations and newspapers have been shut.
Journalists have been imprisoned for asking, formally, for permission to protest publicly at the executions. They were charged with ‘conspiracy to commit a felony.’ Their homes were searched; they were held for more than the statutory 72 hours and were not permitted visits in detention by their lawyer or the Gambian Press Union. They were released on bail of US $8,000.
Currently, an estimated one third of the country’s population of 1.8 million, lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 (78p) a day. A good average wage is $24 (£15) a month. Most villages do not have clean running water, electricity or easy access to health care.
President Jamme claims to cure AIDS, personally, and has called for homosexuals to be beheaded.
An evening of poetry, music, song and food, was celebrated by the Campaign for Human Rights in the Gambia this week in Glasgow.
A key speaker was former Vice President of the West African country, Bakary Dabo, who now lives in London. In a calm and diplomatic way, he explained how a Rule of Fear had overtaken the democratic rule of law which The Gambia had enjoyed before a military coup. ‘The people in power now are not leaders.’ he said. ‘It is a depressing picture. This small country of 2 million people has an appalling human rights abuse record. There is a very vicious despotic system in place run by one man with his clique.’ Mr Dabo emphasised how important it was for groups such as Amnesty International and the Glasgow based Campaign for Human Rights in The Gambia and others to be raising awareness of the situation and to be supportive in the search for a solution.
‘We are hopeful,’ he continued. ‘But The Gambia is right now held by its throat as a hostage.’
Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Danny Alderslowe. A Green Party Councillor, he had that day at the final meeting of the Glasgow City Council before the local government elections, won a motion to review the Personalisation process being implemented by the Council.
Danny had orchestrated an excellent programme of entertainment at the Afro Caribbean Centre in Osborne Street G1. This ranged from Haggis on the bagpipes with Omar on the drums, Jethro from the Congo, Scratchy Noises fiddle band, Fozzy singing fighting songs, Lucio and friends on an array of African stringed instruments and Tomona reciting one of his thoughtful poems. Danny, himself, had written a poem based on the fact that the osprey flies between the Gambia and Scotland ‘easier than a jumbo jet!’
Other speakers included Elena Soper from the University of Glasgow’s Amnesty International group who detailed some of the human rights abuses known about in the Gambia; Arthur West, chairman of the Gambia Human Rights Campaign and John Matthews Chair of the Glasgow Branch of the National Union of Journalists. ‘We support the Campaign wholeheartedly,’ said John. ‘We are the first trades union to recognise journalists who are seeking asylum, as members of our union and we can act on their behalf when possible. As a political journalist, our colleague Alieu Cessay had to flee from the Gambia. He is not alone. Some journalists – and others who have displeased the regime – have disappeared, been imprisoned, tortured. The evening is to celebrate life while expressing our compassion for the safety of our brothers and sisters and highlighting the need to have a free press and freedom of speech if a country is to be truly free.’
Following a meeting at the Scottish Parliament with MSP Humza Yousaf, the Campaign for Human Rights in the Gambia is gaining support among Members. At the time of writing, 16 MSPs from various parties have signed a motion MSP Yousaf launched.
Having heard Gambian exile Alieu B. Ceesay speak at a fringe meeting at the SNP conference in Inverness recently, Humza invited him to Edinburgh to discuss the issues in detail.
Said journalist Alieu: ‘There was an election last month in The Gambia. The President was re-elected as expected. Opponents were not allowed to campaign except for 11 days before voting. Some opponents were jailed in advance of the election. In recent times people have disappeared, been tortured and killed if they displease the Government. People are afraid even to talk about the election result because they don’t know who might be listening.’
According to Amnesty International there is a ‘climate of fear’ in The Gambia. They recently updated their report on human rights abuse in the sunny, West African country and said the situation was getting worse.
MSP Yousaf commented: ”I will support the call for Human Rights in the Gambia. The country is a part of the Commonwealth and also receives financial support from Europe. It must observe the conventions it has signed and its international obligations, that is why I have put forward this motion. Scotland should be a beacon for human rights across the world and we owe a duty to those who seek asylum in our country.’
The motion reads: ‘That the Parliament expresses concern at what it considers the dire human rights situation in Gambia; understands that the Gambian Government refuses to abide by its international human rights obligations, with cases of enforced disappearance remaining unresolved, perpetrators of unlawful killings not being brought to justice and torture still widely used by security forces; further understands that those who report such abuses, particularly in the media, are in grave danger, and expresses solidarity with the human rights defenders of Gambia, many of whom have been granted asylum in Scotland, in their struggle for basic human rights.
To follow the progress and see who has signed up to this motion check out the following website and insert reference number S4M-01460 or Humza Yousaf’s name: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28877.aspx
A campaign started in Glasgow to highlight Human Rights issues in The Gambia, is taking off internationally. In communication with the Australian Government, the campaigners were encouraged by the strength of support from that country. They were told that Australia has already called on The Gambia to amend legislation which infringes freedom of expression in accordance with its international human rights obligations. Australia has also called for The Gambia to make sure that all detainees are properly charged and brought to trial without delay or released. In addition Australia is pressing for an independent body to investigate allegations of ill-treatment, torture and extra-judicial executions within The Gambia. This corresponds with what the Campaigners believe is happening in the West African country which is best known in Scotland for its attractive sunshine holiday spots.
Said Campaign Chairman Arthur West: ‘We very much welcome the interest of the Australian Government in the situation in The Gambia and in particular the case of disappeared journalist Ebrima Manneh. This is an example of the level of international concern. We are proud that people in Scotland are raising awareness of what is happening in The Gambia.’ From the time it was founded about two years ago, the Campaign has called for an independent investigation into human rights abuses and has continued to ask the whereabouts of journalist Ebrima Manneh who disappeared after being taken into official custody and the shooting of journalist Deyda Hydara whose assailants have never been brought to book.
Gambia was the subject of a round table discussion at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this week. Instigated by Labour MP Anas Sarwar at the request of the Glasgow based Campaign for Human Rights in the Gambia, it saw journalists, campaigners, civil servants and politicians share knowledge of the current state of life in that sunny, West African country.
Among the concerns voiced were the lack of independence in the judiciary, the disappearance of working journalist Ebrima Manneh in 2006, the murder of newspaper publisher Deyda Hydara in 2004, the blocking of some websites critical to the present regime and the scewered dissemination of information.
The major issue of the election in November was also raised. Opinions expressed included: – registration of voters was a farce. Opposition parties were hobbled by rules which permit them to promote their cause only ten days before the election date. Concern was expressed that Femi Peters, campaign manager for the United Democratic Party (UDP), an opposition party to President Jammeh, was recently sentenced to one year hard labour for holding a public rally without permission; and that Kanyiba Kanyia, a supporter of the UDP disappeared in 2006.
It was acknowledged that President Jammeh was likely to win the election which would reinforce his position since his coup in 1994.
Said one participant: ‘There are no quick fixes.’
But through the European Union, pressure is being brought to bear on the Gambian Government to adhere to international laws on human rights and freedom of speech that the country has signed up to.
In Glasgow, Gambian exiled journalist, Alieu B. Ceesay, told this website: ‘This was a very successful meeting. It gave the Campaign for Human Rights in the Gambia and other organisations, a forum to engage with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the situation in The Gambia. We hope to build on that momentum to continue to engage with the international community to prioritise the Gambia situation. More must be done urgently to address the wave of terror that has swept that country in the last 16 years.’
The Campaign recently held a rally in Glasgow City Centre to mark Freedom Day in the Gambia. Among the speakers was Labour MP Anas Sarwar for Glasgow Central who initiated meetings with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Patrick Harvie, Green Party MSP in Glasgow who has gained cross party support in the Scottish Parliament for human rights in the Gambia; Kate Temple of Amnesty International whose organisation has published an update to their report on ‘Climate of Fear’ in the Gambia which details enforced disappearances, killings and torture of journalists, politicians and anyone who displeases the regime; and Austin Sheridan an elected Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament who said his Party, SNP, had united with the others on the human rights issue in the Gambia and would fight ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with people there. The Campaign is also strongly supported by the National Union of Journalists which is working through the STUC and the TUC to encourage other unions to do the same.
A video of the rally can be seen and heard on:
In recent years, claims that enforced disappearances, torture and extra judicial executions are taking place in the West African country, have increased. Amnesty International reported in 2008 that Gambia was ruled by Fear.
President Yahya Jammeh who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994, will not campaign for his own re-election in November because he is so confident of winning, say local commentators. In a recent six-week voter registration exercise, 869,600 people signed up to ensure they will receive a vote. The country has a population of 1.7 million of whom more than a quarter are under voting age.