International Human Rights Advocate, Jeffrey Smith, has urged Gambians to start compiling the monumental human rights abuses meted against defenseless civilians for possible prosecution by The International Criminal Court, ICC. Mr. Smith who was speaking to The Fatu Network on a wide range of rights abuses in The Gambia said there is an opportunity for The ICC to hear cases against Gambia’s dictatorship committed since 1994. Below is the full text of the interview with Jeffrey Smith.
Question: We have seen how The Gambia government under dictator Yahya Jammeh continues to repeatedly violate and abuse the very constitution he swore to defend, particularly when it comes to the case of journalist Alhagie Ceesay. What do you think needs to be done to push the case of Alhagie further to the international level?
Answer: I think some good work has already been done to raise the profile of Alhagie Ceesay, but clearly, there is much more work left to be completed. Press freedom advocates need to join together with traditional human rights groups, effectively linking Gambia’s crackdown on press freedom and free to speech to bigger, prevailing concerns in the country; namely the overall lack of respect for human rights and basic human dignity. It would also help if leaders in West Africa, some of which are the continent’s top democratic performers, were to speak out in defense of Alhagie, and those like him, who are languishing behind bars in Gambia— languishing in a prison, mind you, that has been singled out by the United Nations, among others, as being one of the worst of the worst in the world due to the pervasive use of torture and abuse that takes place there, not to mention detainee deaths, which was the case last week with Sheriff Dibba, a former official at the now banned Gambian Transport Union.
Question: We have also seen, and even got credible information, about the deteriorating health condition of journalist Alhagie Ceesay who is being denied bail repeatedly but also denied access to proper healthcare. Under international law what options do you think are available to those fighting Alhagie’s case now?
Answer: Unfortunately, Yahya Jammeh and his regime have proven, repeatedly and with impunity over the past two decades, that the Gambian constitution means little to them, not to mention the myriad regional and international legal conventions to which they have both signed and ratified. In practice, these laws and conventions mean very little to them, as is the case with authoritarian regimes the world over. We have seen Yahya Jammeh frequently snub his nose at the law, and the many rulings against his government, from the ECOWAS court, for example. Given this context, I think the key is to maintain the public pressure through public advocacy and getting policymakers in the United States, in the West African region, and elsewhere to impose consequences on the regime, and on Yahya Jammeh in particular. He has been allowed to abuse the human rights of Gambians with impunity, and with little consequences for twenty-two years now, so I think we need to work to isolate the regime further and begin considering heightened measures, including travel restrictions and asset seizures, in order to compel Jammeh to act in accordance with basic democratic principles and the rule of law.
Question: Torture is routine in The Gambia and most of the reported tortures are very brutal and systematic. Is this quantifiable enough to constitute crimes against humanity?
Answer: I think, taken together, the sheer quantity and systematic use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading abuses that Jammeh, his security forces and affiliated militia groups like the Jungulars, have inflicted against Gambians certainly amounts to crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity are defined as acts that are committed as part of a systematic attack directed against any identifiable part of a population; that the political opposition, human rights activists, and journalists have been murdered, disappeared and at best, arrested and tortured, over the course of the past two decades is evidence enough that Jammeh and his government henchmen are criminals. It’s an absolute travesty, and the Gambian people deserve so much better.
Question: Using Alhagie’s situation as a case scenario: with all the tortures that we hear going on in The Gambia, would it make sense to compile these reported cases of human rights abuses together and start a test case in the international criminal court against dictator Jammeh and his government?
Answer: Absolutely. It’s not enough to have anecdotal tales of abuse and torture. And hearsay will not do anyone any good, least of all Jammeh’s many, many victims.There needs to be systematic and credible documentation of the crimes being committed by the Jammeh regime. This is, of course, a massive undertaking, and a courageous act given the horrid human rights environment in Gambia, but it needs to be done if Jammeh and his APRC associates, as well as those in the security forces, are ever to be held accountable and made to pay for their barbarity.