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Americans Accused of Trying to Overthrow Gambia’s President Sentenced in Minnesota Court

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By Kayla Ruble

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May 12, 2016 | 5:25 pm

 

Four American citizens accused of helping to plan a failed coup in the Gambia against President Yahya Jammeh more than a year ago have been sentenced by a Minnesota judge, who has carried out the first prosecution using the country’s Neutrality Act in 35 years.

 

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The individuals include Texas businessman Cherno Njie, who allegedly funded the operation; Minnesota resident Papa Faal; and 41-year-old Alagie Barrow. All three individuals were charged last January with conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act, a law enacted in 1974 that prevents US citizens from taking action against a friendly nation. They were also charged with conspiring to possess firearms to pursue a violent crime.

 

 

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Njie was sentenced to one year and one day, three years probation and a $10,000 fine. Faal was sentenced to time served over the last year. Barrow received six months in prison and three years probation. All had faced maximum penalties of up to 20 years in prison.

 

 

The fourth defendant, US-based Gambian activist Banka Manneh, was indicted after a separate investigation accused him of assisting with the coup plot. He was accused of having “participated in conference calls and exchanged planning documents with the other members of the conspiracy,” and having “purchased two pistols and one rifle to equip co-conspirators participating in the coup.” He was also charged with violating the Neutrality Act. The last time a case was prosecuted under the Neutrality Act was in 1981 against two individuals accused of a coup attempt in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica.

 

 

The coup saga in the Gambia unfolded during the early hours of December 30, 2014 when a small group of armed men snuck through the borders of the small West African nation and made their way to the capital city Banjul while Jammeh was out of the country. As they attempted to storm the state house they were met with heavy gunfire from security forces, squashing the coup, and killing at least four assailants.

 

 

Many of the men were Gambians who had fled abroad living in countries like the US, UK, and Germany. The assailants, referred to by the Gambian diaspora and dissident factions as “freedom fighters,” included former Gambian military officials and even a US soldier. Njaga Jagne, killed in the firefight, was a Kentucky national Guard member, while Lamin Sanneh, was trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and previously served as commander of Gambia’s presidential guard.

 

 

Faal and Barrow managed to survive and flee across the border into Senegal — which surrounds the coastal country to the north, south, and east. After his escape, Faal went directly to the US embassy in Dakar where he gave an interview before making his way back to the US, officials said. He was later interviewed again by the FBI at the airport in Washington DC. He was charged in January.

 

 

Barrow has been accused of hiding out with Njie at an unidentified location in the Gambia while the operation against the statehouse took place. The investigation said they planned to enter the statehouse once the mission was complete and place Njie in power. The pair also managed to escape and make it back to the US before being charged and indicted.

 

 

After news of the coup broke, the US State Department condemned what they called an attempt to overthrow the government through “extra-constitutional means,” and called on all sides to “refrain from further violence.”

 

 

Manneh, a long-time activist in the Gambian diaspora, was the last to be charged after the FBI investigation alleged he had participated and assisted in planning the coup, although he did not travel to the Gambia to participate. The investigation detailed accusations that Manneh purchased weapons and participated in outlining a future leadership structure.

 

 

Much of his work focused on reaching out to average Gambians and helping them get their stories out of the country. Njie and Faal, on the other hand, were less vocal in their feelings about Jammeh and his regime, with many diaspora members initially surprised by their involvement as the news emerged. In video recordings on YouTube, Manneh spoke about issues facing the Gambia. Speaking just months before the coup attempt, he discussed why he had gotten involved in the “struggle to liberate” the Gambia from what he referred to as Yaya Jammeh’s dictatorship.

 

 

“The reason I am in this struggle is one simple fact, I happen to have my own dreams… the dreams that I have are actually inspired by things I have seen and witnessed in my life, my own experiences.”

 

 

Manneh expresses the excitement he had initially when Jammeh rose to power through a coup in 1994, ousting President Dawda Jawara who had been in power for 24 years. As killings and human rights violations escalated under Jammeh’s regime, Manneh fled to the US. The activist has said this has shaped his dream to fight for a free Gambia.

 

 

“What I see in the US, what I felt in the US, the opportunities I have seen here, the human rights and the democracy and the rule of law is what I want in the Gambia, and even better,” he said. “The Gambia can be like that, we can be a developed nation…. People who have their dignity intact.”

 

 

More than a year after the attempted coup, an opposition movement has developed in the Gambia, starting with protests in April calling for electoral reforms ahead of the December polls that will see Jammeh seek to extend his 22-year rule.

 

 

The 49-year-old dictator is known for silencing dissenters and shoving them in prisons with deplorable conditions. The leader previously also claimed he could cure both AIDS and Ebola, while maintaining that he would rule the Gambia for one billion years — if God allowed it. Recently, Gambia helped prevent a proposal from moving forward during a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States that would have set term limits in the region.

 

 

Jammeh has also become known for anti-LGBT rhetoric, saying in a speech last year that he would slit gay men’s throats. The Gambia is one of 38 countries across Africa where homosexuality is illegal, with Jammeh signing off on a law last year that qualified gay acts as crimes of “aggravated homosexuality” and punishable by life in prison.

 

 

Concerns about free and fair elections, and the recent increase in the cost of running for office, have sparked calls for electoral reforms and the latest protest movement. Tensions escalated in Banjul at the end of April when security forces arrested dozens of people during a march, including several officials from the United Democratic Party. Days later news emerged that youth leader Solo Sandeng died in custody. Critics have continued to gather and protest outside the courthouse as a group of 20 opposition members, including UDP leader Ousainou Darboe.

 

The international community has condemned the Gambian government’s response to the protests. Most recently, the European Parliament issued a condemnation of recent events and ordered an investigation, while also saying the EU and member states should consider implementing travel bans and targeted sanctions against actors in the regime who have carried out abuses.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

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