Interview by Katharine Derderian, EU Foreign Policy Officer at Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office
Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh is the founder and Coordinator of the ‘Coalition for Change – The Gambia’, a NGO seeking to challenge the Gambia’s leadership through non-violent action. He was arrested in June 2011 for distributing t-shirts that featured the slogan “End to Dictatorship Now” and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for conspiring to “overthrow the Government of the Gambia by unlawful means”. Dr. Janneh was released in September 2012 and has recently published his memoir “Standing Up Against Injustice”.
Alieu Ceesay is the founder of the UK Campaign for Human Rights in The Gambia, set up in 2010 to campaign for civil liberties in the Gambia, particularly accountability for disappearances and political killings.
Banka Manneh is the Chairperson of Civil Society Associations – Gambia (CSAG) a coalition of seven Gambian NGOs campaigning for human rights and the rule of law.
Can you tell us something about the recent re-introduction of the death penalty in the Gambia and how that catalysed international attention for the country’s human rights situation
Dr. Amadou Janneh: The re-introduction of the death penalty in the Gambia in August 2012 has had detrimental consequences on the Gambian populace. At the end of Ramadan – without any provocation – the president threatened to execute all death row inmates. So we decided to go around and take down the names of everyone on death row, their nationalities and what got them into trouble and put the information out worldwide. Within a few days we had diplomats, foreign ministers, ambassadors from different parts of the world visiting and talking to the president. And our hopes were raised that he may not carry this out. We’ve only had one execution in the country’s history and that was decades ago so we thought he was bluffing.
Around 9pm on the 23rd of August, without any prior notice and without telling us who was going to get executed, a large security contingent came to the notorious Mile II prisons at night. They went from cell to cell, picked out death row inmates and took them away to be executed. They were never notified in advance; their family members were not informed. And some were taken away without any clothes because they were already asleep when it happened. Unfortunately one of my friends, the one who served as my guide when I was in prison, was also dragged out of his cell. He yelled: “Amadou, I am going to be executed!” And I saw that as a call to action. Even though I was very fearful and didn’t know what would happen if it were discovered that I was a source of information about what was happening in the prison.
I didn’t know who was being taken but I knew that my friend was one of them. He had been on death row for 27 years when his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the former president. But because he was considered to be one of the forces behind a prison hunger strike, the president decided to put him back on death row without following any procedures. We discovered that nine prisoners were taken out and executed. The nine included a Senegalese woman and a man who was mentally disabled. When the others were taken out they screamed and wanted to know what was happening, but when they picked up this mentally ill man he obliged without any resistance because he didn’t even know he was in prison.
So, these were people who were not notified – people who never exhausted their legal options, including their right to appeal. And they were executed. Up to this day, their families have not been told about the circumstances surrounding their executions. After, the president continued to threaten to execute everyone else. That was traumatic for the remaining death row inmates, because they knew he was serious but didn’t know what criteria were being used to pick people out for execution. Then the security forces made it a habit to come by at night and make a lot of noise as if they were going to select some inmates. Within weeks of the execution, two other inmates died of the stress, an 84 year old man and a mentally ill inmate.
One of the problems with the death penalty in the Gambia is the fact that we have a judiciary that is not independent at all. Judges are hired and fired by the president without any explanation. They owe their entire livelihoods to the president and he determines who comes before these judges and the sentences they receive. To have people sentenced to the death penalty under those circumstances is very inhumane to say the least.
What is the general human rights situation in the Gambia
Dr. Amadou Janneh: The human rights situation in the Gambia is deplorable and repugnant. It is now a well-known fact that we have a very repressive regime. Let’s start with free speech. It’s a regime that does not tolerate any form of dissent or criticism at all. The newspapers and radio stations have been relegated to reporting on sports on music programs. Even the slightest criticism of the regime could land a person in jail. Some have disappeared or been killed simply because they exercised their fundamental rights.
We also have some of the worst prisons in the world. These are facilities where even bananas and mangoes are not allowed. The mortality rate within the prison system is high. The medical facilities are very poor and the folks who staff the medical facility in the prison are ill-trained. You have a mix of every kind of prisoners in our prison system. People who suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis, convicted murderers, drug dealers. All are lumped together in the same buildings. Those on death row are not allowed any visitation at all. So it is very horrible situation, and the Gambian government has not allowed groups such as the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) to have access to the facilities to determine the conditions for themselves.
Now it has become normal for Gambian citizens and their families to simply disappear into thin air, particularly those who dare to criticize the government or who are reported by their adversaries to the regime.
It is very unfortunate that the international community has not paid much attention to the situation in the Gambia. The president publicly makes all sorts of irresponsible statements about gays and lesbians and certain ethnic groups—hate speech which has consequences. He follows up threats with arrests. Youngsters simply cross-dressing just for fun have been rounded up, taken to prison and accused of homosexuality. Even worse, they have been paraded before national TV and convicted before even reaching court. These are all matters of concern that we think warrant tough actions.
How would you characterize the influence of the European Union (EU) on the Gambia
To which extent do you think that the EU could influence this situation
Alieu Ceesay: The EU can have a lot of leverage on the Gambia because it is the Gambia’s main development partner. There is a vast amount of financial support given by the EU to major infrastructure projects here which makes us believe the EU can have significant leverage on the human rights situation.
The EU can do this in many ways. They can use regional organisations like ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) to put pressure on the Gambian government to respect human rights and civil liberties. Equally, they can use their influence internationally, which is a key point—we’ve seen the EU do this in other countries. The EU can lead the international effort to ensure there is reform in the Gambia.
Dr. Amadou Janneh: Concretely, the EU could support civil society within the Gambia, because it is not able to function effectively with limited resources and capacity. While we criticise the government for not living up to its international obligations, we must support the people who are bearing the brunt of its repression. I think that will be very crucial.
Alieu Ceesay: The diaspora are practically the only dissenting voice in the country. Associations that were once very vibrant have all been cowed down as a result of this repression. These Gambian diaspora groups do a good job of raising the awareness of the situation in the Gambia, and it is important for the EU to be in touch with these groups as well.
Banka Manneh: I would like to emphasise why the EU needs to work with Gambians to bring this situation to an end. The EU has a vested interest in seeing that the situation going on in the Gambia comes to a stop. First, because of the financial support mentioned earlier. Second, because once you have a democratic Gambia, the EU will have a really wonderful partner to make sure that our shared values are spread throughout the world. These are human rights, democracy and rule of law.
The other issue is the flight of Gambian refugees and their influx into the EU. We’ve seen a huge exodus of Gambians to Senegal, the EU and America. There are people taking all these risks on boats on the high seas. We’ve heard of last month’s major boat accident near Lampedusa where hundreds of migrants lost their lives. As soon as you have major human rights violations going on, people will look for another place to go and that will be the EU. If they want to see an end to that exodus and the risks people are taking, they are going to need to look for a way to solve the problems in our home country.