The Gambia: the African Commission must put a stop to the crackdown on Freedom of Expression and Assembly ahead of Presidential Elections

“Why was I not allowed to take medicine to and see my ailing mother who has been detained for a long period?” asked Mariamma Saine, a young Gambian speaking to a hushed audience amidst sobs and tears rolling down her cheeks.

Like Mariamma, Saikou Jammeh, the Secretary of Gambia Press Union, and many other speakers made an impassioned appeal for assistance to ensure the situation in Gambia does not deteriorate into hopelessness.

These appeals were made during the Gambian-focused panel organized by ARTICLE 19 at the 59th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights.  The panel was attended by among others the Chairperson, Ms Pansy Tlakula and three other commissioners and was the first ever open discussion on the situation of human rights organized in the country for many years.

Mariamma’s family has been a victim of state surveillance since her mother was arrested but she is not alone. There are dozens of families that are in similar situation.

Some have been undergoing this for years, but the situation took a turn for the worse in April and May this year. Security officers violently disrupted a peaceful protest by members and supporters of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) and arrested 90 of them as they agitated for electoral reforms before the Presidential elections scheduled for 1st December 2016.

Thirty of the arrested opposition activists including Ousainou Darbo, the leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), were prosecuted without being  due process and sentenced to three years in prison.

Women protesters were sexually assaulted.  The affected women, like other sick prisoners, have not been accorded basic rights like being allowed to see doctors and  receive essential medicines.

Many  families do not know if their relatives will be sentenced or released: arrests, prosecution and even application for bail did not follow due process as prescribed in international human rights law and national laws. Some applications for bail have continued to be frustrated nearly seven months after their arrest.

Others like the family of the then opposition activist, Solo Sandeng, are suffering the information blackout, losing their family member to torture at the hands of officials from the National Intelligence Agency.

Mariamma’s testimony revealed the agony, trauma and destitution that families and relatives of arrested opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders have to endure. Because basic rights to fair and due process, and access to justice for their detained relatives are routinely violated inside a country that actually hosts the Africa Commission: the body within the African Union charged with promotion and protection of human rights across the continent.

Speaking at the event on the Gambia, the chair of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Ms Pansy Tlakula, leading three other commissioners strongly condemned the continued violations of human rights especially during elections in most Africa countries. “Women are tired. We continue to bear the brunt of election and politically instigated violence. We cannot sit by and watch. We must all say “not any more in our name.” Women have had enough of the violations and disruptions especially when men fight for political power in total disregard of other people’s rights-especially women and children,” she said.

ARTICLE 19 representatives and other panelists echoed that sentiment and urged the ACHPR to pay special attention to women political prisoners who are suffer physical violations, including abuse and rape in an attempt to silence them.

The government of Gambia has not responded to the African Commission’s appeal to be permitted to conduct a fact-finding mission, including visit to political prisoners at the Mile 2 Prison.

“There is dire need for the government to release all political prisoners and initiate a credible, independent inquiry into the continued allegations of torture by security agencies and the deaths that occurred in custody. We cannot look aside when such grave and credible allegations including deaths of citizens,” said Ms Jamesina King, the commissioner responsible for the Gambia.

On December 1, 2016 Gambians will go to the polls to vote for President for the fifth time since current ruler, Yahya Jammeh, come to power through a Coup d’Etat some 22 years ago.

The run-up period is distinctly a testing time for human rights and governance: previous experiences have shown that opposition members, journalists, human rights defenders, civil society organisations, and voters face a significant risk of serious human rights violations if they attempt to express dissenting options.