(Dakar) – Gambian authorities have detained incommunicado, depriving them of all contact with the outside world, dozens of friends and relatives of people accused of involvement in a coup attempt since January 2015, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. Those detained include women, elderly people, and a child, and many are believed to be in ill-health.
The government has refused to acknowledge the whereabouts or even the detention of many of them, effectively holding them outside of the protection of the law. This amounts to enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international law. The Gambian government should urgently reveal their whereabouts and either charge them with a recognizable offense if there is sufficient evidence or immediately release them.
“Gambian authorities are ignoring basic human rights standards by detaining people incommunicado, raising grave concerns of enforced disappearance,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Because their whereabouts are unknown and necessary safeguards are not in place, they are at high risk of torture and other abuses.”
On December 30, 2014, armed men attacked the State House in the capital, Banjul, but were repelled by Gambian security forces. In the days that followed, state security agents, including soldiers and plainclothes National Intelligence Agency (NIA) agents, picked up the associates, friends, and family members of people accused of involvement in the coup attempt. Those detained were taken to the intelligence agency’s headquarters, where most are believed to have been held incommunicado since.
A number of family members of detainees have told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about the detention of their loved ones. But many are afraid to speak out. Relatives outside the country have told the two organizations that some family members have been threatened with arrest by state security officials if they continue to seek the whereabouts of their relatives.
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture reported in March 2015 that at least 52 people had been detained, most by men in civilian clothing thought to work for the state intelligence agency. Several were released between February and May, and it is unclear how many still remain in incommunicado detention.
One of the relatives being held is Yusupha Lowe, the 16-year-old son of Bai Lowe, a man suspected of taking part in the December 2014 coup and then fleeing the country. Gambians in the diaspora, using social media, began a campaign for the child’s release in late April 2015. His family received informal reports that he had been held at the intelligence headquarters in Banjul since January but credible sources in recent days have told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that he is no longer there. The government has refused to provide information about his whereabouts to family members and there are growing concerns about his safety.
Mariam Njie, the mother of Alhaji Jaja Nass, who was killed during the attempted coup, was detained on January 5, and relatives believe she was taken to the intelligence agency headquarters. Meta Njie, the mother of Col. Lamin Sanneh, who was also killed during the attempted coup, was detained on January 1. Authorities have not released any information about her whereabouts and family members have not had responses to their inquiries. Both women are in their late 60s.
Essa Bojang, the father of a suspected coup plotter, Dawda Bojang, who fled after the attack, was picked up by plainclothes men thought to be intelligence agents and uniformed soldiers on January 1. He is also in his 60s and has a physical disability. Relatives believe he is being held at the intelligence agency headquarters but have had no response from authorities to requests for information about his whereabouts and wellbeing.
Prolonged incommunicado detention and other due process violations flout Gambia’s obligations under its own constitution, which requires authorities to bring detainees before a court of law within 72 hours. It is also against Gambia’s obligations under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In March, a secret military court sentenced three soldiers to death and three other soldiers to life in prison on charges of treason, desertion, conspiracy, and mutiny, relating to their alleged involvement in the failed coup. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe they did not receive a fair trial with adequate legal representation. Three other men were killed in the attempted coup. Despite repeated requests, family members have yet to receive the bodies.
On January 14, President Yahya Jammeh announced his government’s willingness to work closely with the UN to investigate the events of December 30, 2014. On February 28, 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a resolution seeking an invitation to conduct a fact-finding mission. However, no independent investigation has taken place.
“These long, cruel detentions outside of any semblance of a legal process or investigation violate the most basic human rights and are penalized under international law,” said Sabrina Mahtani, West Africa researcher at Amnesty International. “Snatching people up and holding them this way will only further instill fear and distrust among Gambians.”
To take action on these cases, please visit Amnesty’s Urgent Action: