DAKAR - Activists across West Africa held protests Tuesday on the 20th anniversary of President Yahya Jammeh's seizure of power to raise awareness about what they call Gambia's "dire" human rights situation. Human rights groups are demanding the Gambian government put an end to alleged repression, torture and forced disappearances.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Gambian embassy in Senegal's capital to, in their words, raise awareness about ongoing human rights violations in Gambia.
Activists in other cities are calling for the Gambian government to revoke laws they say have led to a culture of intimidation, harassment and detention over the past 20 years.
“We are here to denounce 20 years of oppression, 20 years of lack of freedom in the Gambia, but also to show signs of solidarity for all the victims of human rights violations, especially those who have lost their lives, those who have disappeared, those that have been tortured and maltreated, and those that have lost their freedom and are in prison for just wanting to be part of the way their country is run and those that wanted just to express their views,” said Fatou Jagne, director of Article 19, an international organization that advocates for freedom of expression and access to information.
The Gambian government has previously denounced what it calls a "relentless smear campaign" by Western powers against its human rights record.
In a statement in October 2013, it said Gambia's "enemies" have set up organizations to spread lies and make what it called "false, outrageous and unfounded statements" about the state of human rights in the country.
But many Gambians say they have been subjected to years of oppression and fear since the 1994 military coup that brought President Yahya Jammeh to power.
Jammeh reinstated the death penalty and enacted restrictive freedom of expression laws, which, according to human rights defenders, are so vague that they can be used to charge anyone who expresses any sort of dissent.
Former Gambian political prisoner Amadou Janneh was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for distributing T-shirts that read “End Dictatorship Now.” He is currently living in asylum in the United States.
“The Gambia today has one of the worst human rights records in the world and in almost every sphere of fundamental human rights you can be assured that the Gambian government disregards its own laws and you have severe violations in the area of freedom of expression," he said. "You have journalists who have disappeared, been killed, simply for performing their duties ... The president does not allow any modicum of dissent in the country.”
Amnesty International, which has documented the unpublicized executions of death row inmates and torture of human rights activists in Gambia, says it is time for things to change.
“We are really calling for the international community and the government of Senegal, but also the government of Gambia, to put an end to this regime of fear by repealing legal provisions in the criminal code which are used to restrict dissent, to release political prisoners and to hold perpetrators of human rights violations to account and bring them to justice,” said Francois Patuel, Amnesty International’s West Africa campaigner.
Protesters gathered Tuesday in countries such as Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Senegal, and Sierra Leone to express solidarity with the Gambian rights campaign.