The darker side of sunny Gambia

By Thomas Fessy
BBC News

Jetty on the river GambiaImage source, Thinkstock

The carrying out of the death penalty on nine prisoners in The Gambia, the first state executions in almost 30 years, has raised questions about the country's human rights record, questions the authorities are less than keen to answer.

I was checking out of a lovely lodge-hotel right on the ocean when the two middle-aged British tourists stormed into reception.

They were upset that the fisherman they had booked had not turned up. It had been raining heavily and the fisherman, I thought, had probably assumed that they would rather stay indoors.

While they must have been wondering earlier if they would ever get out in a boat, I had been in my room watching the rain bucketing down while constantly checking my phone.

I was hoping to get a call from the authorities saying I could stay on in The Gambia, but perhaps I was being naive.

I was dealing with the other face of this country - one that most of the 50,000 British tourists who come here each year do not get to see.

I had arrived at the airport less than 48 hours earlier. I had the correct visa to report as a journalist but was held there for more than five hours and was only released after the British High Commission stepped in.

It was told I had to take the next flight back to my base in Senegal, which meant my stay at the lodge was only a brief one.

'Death row'

I was sent to The Gambia after nine prisoners were executed there.

The President, Yahya Jammeh, had said earlier he was determined to clear up "death row". Today there are another 38 prisoners there, wondering what their fate will be.

Image caption,
President Jammeh's government has been criticised by international rights groups for its attitude to civil liberties

These were the first executions in The Gambia since 1985. Amnesty International had described the state as "abolitionist in practice", but President Jammeh's reputation of being an unpredictable ruler was once again confirmed.

At the end of last year, in a rare interview with the BBC, he replied to allegations of human-rights violations quite bluntly. A number of local journalists, activists or opposition members had been arrested, mysteriously murdered or had simply disappeared.

When my colleague asked him about these cases, the president pointed out that there were people in jail sentenced to death who were still alive so, he said, he was hardly likely to have killed people who had not been condemned under the law.

"Do you think I want to earn a one-way ticket to hell?" he asked.

The death penalty is certainly legal under the constitution of The Gambia but one can argue that proper legal procedures were not observed before or after the executions. And the bodies of the nine were not even handed back to their families.

Nobody understands why Yahya Jammeh suddenly decided to implement the death penalty.

I was hoping I could meet him in person so he could explain.

During the brief period I was in his country, the president - who describes himself as a countryman - was apparently spending time on his village farm.

Did he know I was in the capital Banjul and being expelled?

"Of course he knows," diplomats and others told me. "He has people everywhere, undercover agents who tell him everything."

I was warned ahead of my trip that I would probably be spied on while reporting there, but in the end I was prevented from doing any work.

What was the government so worried about, I wondered.

'Spiritual guidance'

It did eventually confirm the executions had taken place - but only after news of them had begun to leak out. It said the prisoners were killed by firing squad.

President Jammeh - who said he would rule The Gambia for one billion years if Allah said so - is known to be keen on receiving spiritual guidance from his medium.

There are persistent rumours, not discounted by foreign diplomats, that these executions have a lot to do with the president's belief in the supernatural and in traditional juju practices. And that the prisoners were not in fact shot dead but killed by lethal injection.

Of course, The Gambia is a rumour mill. Many of the rumours are fuelled by the online reports of opposition members in exile but, if the executions really were carried out according to the rule book, then why were the bodies not handed over to the families?

Meanwhile those still on death row, their families and human rights groups have no idea if more executions are to be carried out.

I first saw that British couple the day before their planned fishing trip.

As usual I was hunkered down over my phone, hoping to hear that the authorities had, after all, decided to let me in.

The man and woman were in the hotel bar, happily chatting away over gin and tonics. It did not look like they were discussing the country's grim human-rights record. But our Gambian experiences were obviously very different.

The constant rain had disrupted their holiday. To me it simply added another detail to the image of a tropical country closed to journalists.

That, I reflected, usually means there are nasty things to hide.

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