A new report said The Gambia under President Yahya Jammeh is a country in a state of fear characterized by rampant repression, torture, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.
The report, State of Fear, published Thursday by Human Rights Watch, accuses the government of targeting journalists, human rights defenders, student and religious leaders, political opposition, the LGBT community or anyone who dares to disagree with President Jammeh.
Felicity Thompson, principal researcher and author of the report, said while President Jammeh deserves some credit for pardoning death-row inmates in July, he must do more by releasing all those who are wrongfully detained.
Thompson also said the government must impartially investigate abuses by the country’s security forces and paramilitary groups.
“The Gambia is a small country with very large human rights problems. Many people know it for its beautiful beaches, but beyond the tourist spot, there’s a very repressive government that for more than 20 years has created a state of fear. We found that the government of The Gambia commits very serious human rights abuses virtually against anyone who dissents,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the report is based on research conducted in Senegal, Gambia and the United States between October 2014 and August 2015 during interviews with “38 victims, witnesses, and others with direct knowledge of abuses in Gambia."
It said the country’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the paramilitary “Jungulers,” the Serious Crimes Unit and the Police Intervention Unit of The Gambia of being frequently implicated in abuses.
“What was very striking about the research was the very palpable sense of fear. People were very afraid to speak to us. They believed they were under surveillance and that they would suffer retaliation for speaking about human rights abuses,” Thompson said.
Thompson admits the Gambian government has been almost indifferent to any criticism. Still, she said the government must take steps to investigate allegations of torture or ill-treatment by state security and prosecute those who are credibly implicated in serious abuses like unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests.
“We have attempted to communicate with the government in Banjul; we shared our findings and recommendations with the government and offered an opportunity to reply and to input into our report. Unfortunately we didn’t hear back from the government, but we are looking forward to engaging with them, working with them on our recommendations,” Thompson said.
Appeal to international partners
The report called on Gambia’s international partners and other governments, including the Economic Community of West African States of which The Gambia is a member to consistently and publicly condemn abuses by the Gambian government, and raise human rights concerns directly with Gambian officials.
“Increasingly, the international community is speaking out about the horrific human rights abuses in Gambia but they need to do more. Countries like the United States, countries like the United Kingdom, the European Union, they should insist that Gambians are protected from torture, illegal killings and disappearances. They should pressure the Gambian government to disband paramilitary groups who are committing terrible abuses,” Thompson said.
Thompson credited President Jammeh for pardoning hundreds of inmates during July this year, the 21st anniversary of his taking power. But she said the Gambian government must do more.
“We have seen some positive signs most recently from the Gambian government. In July President Jammeh pardoned and released over 200 prisoners and that included political prisoners also. But it’s not enough. We need the Gambian government to go further in this direction and release all of those who are wrongfully detained,” Thompson said.
As has been the case in the past, the Gambian government was not available immediately for comment. All attempts to get a comment from the Gambian government failed.