(JollofNews) – Aisha was just two weeks old when her father Momodou was arrested. A long time supporter of Gambia’s largest opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), he was arrested with several other UDP members on 16 April 2016 as they walked down the road with their arms linked in solidarity.
They were calling for the release of political prisoners and demanding justice for their colleague Solo Sandeng, who died after being tortured in state custody following his arrest during a peaceful protest.
A few weeks later, on 9 May, Momodou’s wife Kaddy went to court to catch a glimpse of her husband during his trial. As she was going home, she and dozens of other people were arrested by the police intervention unit.
Kaddy was badly beaten and detained. Family members took baby Aisha to the cell where she was detained with her mother for 10 days until lawyers from the Female Lawyers Association went to court and got bail for her, making sure she and Aisha were released.
In July, Momodou and 29 others, including the UDP leader Ousainou Darboe, were sentenced to three years in prison on various charges related to holding an unlawful protest.
Kaddy’s case is still on trial. Aisha goes to court with her, where she gurgles as police officers look on and lawyers defend her mother’s case.
Although these cases are relatively well known as they are linked to prominent members of the opposition, many families of the disappeared in Gambia have no news about their loved ones. Under the outgoing President, Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s climate of fear was sustained for years through regular arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as routine torture. You could never be sure who would be arrested, when or why.
A few months ago I interviewed the family members of three Imams who have not been seen since October 2015. They have received unofficial information that their relatives may be detained in Janjanbureh prison but have no access to them. It is unclear why they were arrested, although family members think it may relate to a petition they sent to President Jammeh asking for the release of some rice farmers who had been detained.
Throughout these interviews I found myself looking around, checking that no one was listening, that we had not been followed. What sounds like paranoia was a way of life in Jammeh’s Gambia, where the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) routinely arrested people perceived as opponents of the regime or who spoke out against it.
“You don’t know who to trust,” a civil society activist told me. “You can’t trust your maid, the top-up seller – anyone can be an informant.”
Another activist told me, “Jammeh has ruled for so long because he has succeeded in making us afraid and not trusting each other.”
Even members of the government were not immune from being picked up by security forces. A relative of Ousman Jammeh (no relation to the president), the former Deputy Minister of Agriculture, cried as she recounted how Jammeh left one day in October 2015 to go to work and never returned. There are rumours that he is detained at Mile 2 prison in Banjul, notorious for its terrible conditions, but no official information has been given and no charges have been brought. The family do not understand why he was arrested and wait every day for some piece of information.
Given this climate of fear and the country’s history of human rights abuses, the peaceful transfer of power that took place following the election last week has left many people stunned. When the results were announced, many Gambians shed tears, before calling family members abroad to tell them that they could finally come home.
On Monday I sat in a packed courtroom for Ousainou Darboe and Momodou’s appeal hearing. The court erupted into shouts of “Freedom!” and supporters stood to sing the national anthem as Darboe and Momodou were granted bail along with 17 other political prisoners. Aisha, the youngest person in the courtroom, smiled and laughed as if she understood what an important moment this was. Although the case is not over, the detainees are now at home with their families after spending eight months in Mile 2 prison.
Sitting in the courtroom I thought about the significance of this moment for the many Gambians who, over the years, have risked their lives to fight for their rights. The journalists who were tortured or forced into years of exile for shedding light on human rights abuses; the courageous lawyers who stood up to defend people unfairly arrested, at great personal risk; and the thousands more Gambians who took to the streets to support their candidates during the election.
Gambia’s new government has much to do. A first step will be to release all political prisoners, and provide answers for families who have waited too long for news of their loved ones’ whereabouts.
Amnesty International met with President-elect Adama Barrow on the eve of the election and again this week. We were encouraged when he said that political prisoners would be released, the rule of law protected and that no more people would disappear without a trace. Halifa Sallah, another leader of the coalition of opposition parties that won the election, told me that “We need to reject arbitrariness of government in Gambia; to hold onto the principles of justice”.
The new government also needs to allow inspections of prisons which were shut to the outside world under Jammeh’s rule. It needs to address the impunity gap in the security forces, particularly the NIA, and put a stop to arbitrary arrests and torture.
When the international spotlight moves away from Gambia in the next few weeks and these historic events become old news, we must not look away. We owe it to Gambians to support them on this difficult journey to seek truth, justice and reconciliation as they shape their new Gambia.
Sabrina Mahtani is Amnesty International’s West Africa Researcher. She was in Gambia during the election monitoring the human rights context. Follow her on twitter @sabrina_mahtani
Amnesty International has been documenting human rights violations and abuses in Gambia for more than 10 years and released a report, Dangerous to Dissent: Human Rights Under Threat in Gambia, several months ahead of the elections.