“We want you to help us.” This was the message a Gambian human rights activist delivered to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights at a Gambia-focused panel discussion in Banjul, Gambia’s capital, on Friday.
The African Commission’s 59th ordinary session, which opened Friday, combines the commission’s usual work monitoring and reporting on human rights violations with events to celebrate the African Year of Human Rights.
Many of Gambia’s human rights activists, however, find little to celebrate. In advance of Gambia’s December 1 presidential election, security forces have arrested more than 90 opposition activists for participating in peaceful protests. Thirty – including the leader of Gambia’s largest opposition party, the United Democratic Party – have been prosecuted and sentenced to three-year prison terms. Two opposition protesters have died in Gambian custody, including the UDP’s national organizing secretary, Solo Sandeng, who was beaten to death at Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency in April.
Friday’s panel, which was organized by Article 19, an international media freedom group, was a rare example of an open discussion of Gambia’s human rights situation occurring inside the country, which hosts the African Commission. Since coming to power in 1994, President Yahya Jammeh has used arbitrary arrests, torture, and forced disappearances to force Gambian journalists and civil society organizations to self-censor their criticism of his government.
A few days after Sandeng’s death in detention, the commission called on Gambia to ensure the prompt release of peaceful protesters and to investigate deaths in custody. The government has failed to do so. And it has not granted the commission’s April request to visit political prisoners at its notorious Mile 2 prison.
The current session provides the commissioners, four of whom attended Friday’s panel, the chance to elevate concern about the recent violations and need for the Gambian government to respect the civil and political rights of its citizens ahead of the election.
The commission should adopt a resolution repeating its requests that Gambia release all political prisoners, conduct an independent investigation into opposition deaths in custody and excessive use of force against protesters, and grant access to Gambia’s prisons.
The commission should also make clear to the government that, should it again fail to comply with the resolution, the commission will consider referring Gambia to the African Union Executive Council for non-compliance.
As Banjul pulsates with lively debate involving government delegations and human rights advocates, it is easy to forget that, for members of Gambia’s civil society and political opposition, speaking out can exact a terrible price. The commission should take steps to help make their voices heard.