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.
East Dunbartonshire MP, Jo Swinson, met a delegation from the Human Rights in The Gambia Campaign before the holiday season. She heard how politicians, journalists and citizens of all backgrounds are living in fear under the regime of President Yahya Jammeh who took over with a military coup in July 1994.
Recent elections returned him to power and question marks have been raised by international monitoring organisations about the fairness of the November election process. Opponents were given 11 days to campaign in advance of polling day. Several were detained before and after the election. The media and the judiciary are almost exclusively controlled by the Government.
According to an Amnesty International report of 2008, there was a ‘climate of fear’ in the West African country which is part of the Commonwealth. A follow up report published earlier this year, said that the enforced disappearances of people, unlawful killings and torture in The Gambia indicated a ‘deteriorating human rights situation.’
The Lib Dem MP said she was surprised to learn some of the detail and raised questions on the economics of The Gambia and its relationship to Europe, the UK, the USA and the Economic Community of West African States. She said she would consider the information with a view to raising a cross party Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.
She is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Business Secretary Vince Cable in the Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition Government in London and a long standing member of Amnesty International.
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: