, Gambia, Feb 17 – As the Gambia marks its 50th year of independence on Wednesday, critics say the milestone is tainted by the dismal human rights record of an increasingly isolated regime.
President Yahya Jammeh, an outspoken military officer and former wrestler, has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1994.
The regime of the man who says he can cure AIDS is often berated for human rights abuses, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and the muzzling of journalists.
Elections in November 2011 were boycotted by observers from the main west African bloc which reported “an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power … and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation”.
Amnesty International published a report towards the end of last year stating that Jammeh’s opponents were being subjected to daily rights violations and detailing a crackdown by authorities on the media.
“The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are seriously curtailed as the government keeps a tight control of the media, and journalists and human rights defenders continue to be arbitrarily arrested, detained and subject to enforced disappearance,” it said.
“The government unlawfully interferes with the independence of the judiciary, and the culture of impunity, in particular among law enforcement officials, is widespread.”
– Aura of mysticism –
The Gambian constitution guarantees the rights of its citizens, yet Jammeh has “on several occasions denounced human rights as a ‘Western notion'”, Amnesty said.
Lawmakers recently passed several pieces of legislation restricting the right to freedom of expression.
These include an amendment to the criminal code which places harsher punishments on acts of public disorder, such as “singing abusive songs” and cross-dressing.
The Information and Communication (amendment) Act 2013 allows up to 15 years’ imprisonment for criticising government officials online and targets people who spread “false news” about the government.
In a pervading climate of fear, most journalists in the nation of 1.8 million practise self-censorship, yet the government regularly closes down media outlets deemed critical of government policies.
Amnesty has documented numerous cases of journalists being arrested and detained without charge and having their passports withheld on release.
Meanwhile the government has publically accused human rights defenders of being “foreign agents” spreading “nothing but lies”.
Jammeh has woven an aura of mysticism around himself, dressing in billowing white robes, carrying a Koran everywhere with him and heaping derision on criticism from the West.
But opponents say he has become increasingly paranoid, regularly reshuffling his ministers and keeping only a tiny circle of trusted allies close to him.
The presidential guard on December 30 put down a bid to seize power blamed mainly on ex-servicemen from the Gambian and US armed forces while Jammeh was in Dubai.
Jammeh has since reshuffled his government twice in less than two weeks, with high profile culls at the justice, foreign affairs, information, and transport ministries.
There has also been a wave of arrests, detentions and harassment across the country targeting family members of those suspected of involvement, relatives and right groups have said.
– Arbitrary arrests –
The feared National Intelligence Agency and the police routinely carry out arbitrary arrests, say critics, holding “suspects” unlawfully for weeks without charge.
Jammeh has also made numerous public statements attacking gay rights, including at the United Nations General Assembly in 2013.
In February last year, he stated that “we will fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes”.
He enacted a law in October creating the crime of “aggravated homosexuality” which carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment, according to critics of the regime.
On Monday last week three Gambian men were among the first to be charged with the offence, which critics say targets people with HIV, and remanded at the notorious State Central Prison in Banjul.
Opposition leader Omar Jallow described the crackdown as “another attempt on the part of this government to divert public attention on… human rights violations, the problem of rule of law, youth unemployment, poverty and economic stagnation”.
An academic based in Banjul, who asked to remain anonymous, said Jammeh deserved credit for establishing the country’s only university, a state television service, hospitals and roads linking Banjul to the countryside.
“He has however made a lot of impetuous decisions such as withdrawing from the Commonwealth, severing ties with Taiwan and openly declaring that he has cure for HIV/AIDS,” the source said.