Arbitrary kidnappings and beatings of citizens in The Gambia, allegedly involving President Yaya Jammeh’s forces, signal a deterioration of human rights, says Amnesty International.
Up to 1,000 people have been kidnapped by ‘witch doctors’ – from Guinea, rights activists say – since early February and taken to detention centres or to the President’s farm in Kanilai, accompanied by the President’s personal protection guards, the police and the army, according to an Amnesty International communiqué released on 18 March.
Amnesty says in its communiqué that witch doctors were invited to Gambia in early 2009 soon after the death of President Jammeh’s aunt; the President reportedly believes witchcraft was used in her death.
An unknown number of Gambians have fled across the border to Senegal’s southern Casamance region and Amnesty International staff fear the hunts may expand.
“We are concerned the hunt may spread to other villages,” said Tania Bernath, Gambia researcher at Amnesty International in London. “For such a small country, with a small population [1.5 million], there are lots of human rights abuses [going on] on quite a big scale...We have great concern that the situation in The Gambia appears to be getting worse.”
Most Gambians have been “flabbergasted” by the hunt, Bernath told IRIN. “They say it is archaic and cannot believe it is going on in their country.”
Victims told the organisation they were held for up to five days and forced to drink herbal concoctions that made them hallucinate. Many said they were severely beaten, some at gunpoint, in many cases nearly to death. All have since been released.
“I was among several villagers who were forcefully abducted from home by a group of armed soldiers and some civilians on 9 March,” Kebba Saneh* from Makumbaya village in Kombo district told IRIN. “I was forced to drink drugs which made me unconscious. There was no way we could try to escape.”
Amnesty says two people have died from drinking the herbs, and several have been treated for harmful effects at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in the Gambian capital Banjul.
Lamin Jammeh* said his stepmother was kidnapped in February and on release was hospitalised due to health problems related to the herbs. She died on 4 March.
“We have no doubt these acts were condoned by the government because of the presence of the police, army and President’s guards,” Amnesty’s Bernath told IRIN.
Army spokespeople have denied involvement in the kidnappings and the President’s office has remained silent on the issue, say local reporters.
Many of the victims came from the Foni Jarrol district, near the President’s farm, in the southwest on the border with Senegal, according to Amnesty.
News of the kidnappings emerged on 5 February when opposition leader Halifa Sallah wrote about them in the local Foroyaa newspaper. Sallah was arrested on 15 March and charged with spying and sedition. Currently in prison in Banjul, he awaits a trial set for 25 March.
“The charges are directly linked to his speaking out against the kidnaps,” said Bernath.
Sallah has been detained several times since President Jammeh came to power in 1994.
Amnesty International’s 2008 State of the World’s Human Rights report alleges a string of illegal detention, disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings.
In May 2008 President Jammeh threatened to expel or behead homosexuals in the country – comments he later retracted.
Civil society is weak in The Gambia, Bernath said. “No one acts, no one resists because there is so much fear about [the consequences].”
Pointing to the latest kidnappings market vendor Fatou in Banjul told IRIN: “It is people’s rights that are worst hit. The international community should speak out against this inhuman act.”
*Not their real names
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions