Too Small to Care in Gambia?

Banjul’s Hidden Human Rights Crisis

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh attends a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in Dakar, April 2, 2012. Joe Penney / Reuters

In the past few months, the West African nation of Gambia, not much bigger than Connecticut, has received an unusual amount of international media coverage. After an alleged coup attempt in December against President Yahya Jammeh, several Gambian Americans were charged in the United States under the Neutrality Act, an eighteenth-century law that makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to participate in an attack against a “peaceful country.”

The Neutrality Act was last applied successfully in 1981, when nine men were sentenced to three years in prison for planning to overthrow the government of Dominica. These may be uncommon charges, but the Gambian Americans can expect a fair and transparent hearing: they are assured due process and, under the Neutrality Act, a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a fine of $3,000. 

Meanwhile, on March 30, a secret military court in Gambia handed down death sentences to three Gambian soldiers accused of participating in the coup attempt. The sentences are of particular concern given that the Jammeh government has, in the past, swiftly and secretly executed prisoners on death row without giving them a chance to appeal. In August 2012, for example, nine death row inmates were executed in one overnight session.

Since the attempted coup in December, six Gambian soldiers, including the three sentenced to death, have been held in solitary confinement and denied contact with family members and proper access to lawyers. Credible Gambian sources have alleged that the soldiers have been tortured and abused in detention. At least 30 other people have been arrested and detained without charge, many of them relatives of the alleged coup plotters. Several reports indicate that one detainee is as old as 84 and another as young as 13. 

These reports are just the most recent reminder of the horrendous human rights situation in Gambia. Attempting to overthrow a government is illegal, but that’s no justification for the violation of basic human rights to due process and a fair trial. Unfortunately, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture,

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