Gambia: Progress in first 100 days of Barrow government requires major reform to break with brutal past

27 April 2017, 13:31 UTC

• 100 days into President Barrow’s rule, Amnesty International presents a human rights agenda for the country 

• Commitment to International Criminal Court and release of political prisoners welcomed as major progress

• Amnesty calls for repeal of repressive laws, reform of security forces, accountability for past human rights violations and abuses and abolition of the death penalty

The Gambian authorities can make a decisive break from the country’s brutal past by repealing repressive laws, reforming the security services and ensuring accountability for past serious violations of human rights, Amnesty International said today as Gambian President Adama Barrow marks 100 days in office.

Recognizing the major progress made since President Barrow’s inauguration on 19 January, including the release of dozens of political prisoners and retraction of Gambia’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Amnesty International has published a series of recommendations covering 10 areas of reform.

The document, ‘Human rights priorities for the new Gambian government’ was produced in consultation with Gambian civil society organizations and handed over to President Barrow during a meeting on 31 March with Amnesty International delegates in the capital Banjul. During the meeting President Barrow promised that there would be “zero tolerance” for human rights violations under his government.

“President Barrow’s first 100 days have included some momentous steps forward for human rights in Gambia, but there remains a huge amount to do in order to make a decisive break with the country’s brutal past,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa Regional Director.

“Draconian laws, unaccountable security forces and a weak justice system provided the machinery of repression during Yahya Jammeh’s rule, and the work to reform them begins now. Gambia should also seize the opportunity of becoming the 20th country in Africa to abolish the death penalty.”

Amnesty International is also calling on the international community and regional organizations, including donor countries as well as bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to support Gambia in this long term process of reform through financial support and technical assistance.

Arbitrary arrest and torture

Amnesty International urges President Barrow to ensure that the security services are reformed – including disbanding paramilitary groups implicated in previous human rights violations such as the “Jungulers” – and that torture is established as an offence under Gambian law. Under the previous regime, the United Nations described the practice of torture as “prevalent and routine” and suspected perpetrators were never held to account.

The organization also calls for investigations into allegations of torture, the closure of unofficial detention centres, and access to all detention sites by independent national and international human rights monitors.

“Under Yahya Jammeh, so many people were detained unlawfully and tortured. President Barrow’s government must send a clear signal that the era of illegal detentions, torture and a prison system built to instill fear in the population is over,” said Alioune Tine.

Freedom of expression and assembly

Amnesty International is calling for the repeal of a range of draconian laws that have been used to curb the right to freedom of expression in Gambia. They include laws banning criticism of officials and laws prohibiting the “publication of false news”. Journalists, such as Alhagie Ceesay and Alagie Jobe, were targeted under these laws and hundreds of journalists fled into exile during the Jammeh regime.

The right to peaceful protest should also be enshrined in law, with security forces instructed to avoid the use of force to disperse peaceful gatherings, and offences, such as holding a procession without a permit under the Public Order Act, repealed. Under the previous regime, opposition assemblies were regularly prohibited or dispersed. In April and May 2016, dozens of opposition protestors were arrested after a peaceful demonstration, and in April 2000 thirteen students and a journalist were killed when security forces opened fire on students peacefully protesting.

“In his first 100 days President Adama Barrow has already ordered the release of many people imprisoned simply for expressing their opinion. Now his government should ensure that Gambians will always be able to express their opinion or criticism of government without fear of recrimination,” said Alioune Tine.

Amnesty International welcomes the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address Gambia’s history of extensive human rights violations and abuses, and calls on the authorities to ensure that it is accompanied by a clear prosecution strategy to ensure accountability for serious violations of human rights such as torture and enforced disappearances, including those that Amnesty International documented during Yahya Jammeh’s regime.

Steps also need to be taken to strengthen the justice system to ensure that international fair trial standards are respected, while the National Human Rights Commission should be made operational as quickly as possible so it can support efforts to ensure accountability and strengthen human rights protections.

“Gambians who have been victims of repression over the last 22 years are seeking justice, and it is essential that there is accountability for the human rights crimes of the past. But any investigations and prosecutions must be done in a way that ensures fair trials for those suspected to be involved, and provides a positive example of how justice can be done in this new era”, said Alioune Tine.