Two international human rights workers jailed this week in the Gambia are out of prison, but unable to leave the country until their passports are returned and they are cleared of government suspicions of espionage. Although Amnesty International researcher Tania Bernath and advocacy officer Ameen Ayodele entered the Gambia with government authorization and were never officially charged, their visit to a countryside detention center hundreds of kilometers from the capital Banjul embroiled them in controversy. From Dakar, Amnesty International country director for neighboring Senegal, Seydi Gassama, says attorneys and foreign diplomats are working diligently to secure their departure.
“Amnesty has been in contact with the Gambian government at a very senior level in order to obtain their unconditional release, and we really hope that maybe by the end of the week, this decision will be settled, and they will be able to leave the country. These two staff came from London. They are not based in the Gambia or in Senegal. They are foreign citizens, and their countries have embassies in the Gambia, and their embassies and consulates in the Gambia are taking the issue very seriously and are working also to obtain their release,” he said.
On October 6, Bernath and Ayodele were detained along with their companion, Yaya Dampha, a Gambian journalist with the Banjul opposition bi-weekly Foroyaa, and their driver, Lamin Barrow. After spending about 48 hours in detention the four were released on Monday, October 8, with the help of Amnesty attorneys, who posted bail of about five thousand US dollars each. Amnesty’s Gassama says the Gambian National Intelligence Agency’s (NIA) intimations of espionage are ridiculous.
“Amnesty is not a government agency. It is a human rights organization, and we have been monitoring the situation in the Gambia for many years. And our research has been made public in our reports. So there is not any kind of espionage, and we are asking the Gambian government really to think about this kind of declaration because I would say they are absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
News reports said the rights workers for the London-based watchdog group were seized while trying to monitor the whereabouts of several Gambians, journalists and political opponents of the regime of President Yahyah Jammeh. The four detainees were reportedly jailed last Saturday in the eastern town of Basse, about 500 kilometers from the capital Banjul. They initially were taken to the residence of the governor of Upper River Region for interrogation and eventually transferred back to Banjul’s central police headquarters. From Senegal, Seydi Gassama would not confirm the four were seeking to find detained opposition politician Ousman Jatta at the Basse police station, when they were seized. He also said he had no information to offer on the whereabouts of Gambian journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh, who has been missing for more than one year. Gassama noted that Amnesty International is actively trying to unmask the widespread repression practiced by the Jammeh regime, which he says has one of the worst human rights records in Africa.
“Amnesty researchers will be the signal for all international human rights organizations and for all the western governments to really see and give the importance to what is happening in the Gambia because the Gambian people have to live with the oppressive regime. A lot of journalists have had to flee the country. August politicians have fled the country. We have hundreds of Gambians currently in Senegal seeking asylum because they have fear for their security and their life in the Gambia. And no meaningful work has been done by international NGO’s in the country. And the situation is absolutely worse for the ordinary Gambian, who really needs to be supported in the fight for freedom,” noted Gassama.