Earlier this year, Gambian-born American citizen Fanta Jawara visited the Gambia after an 11-year absence to be part of a community event in her village. During her stay, a wave of anti-government protests rocked Banjul, Gambia’s capital, for days. On April 16, while she waited for a taxi in the midst of those protests, 45-year-old Jawara was arrested by a Gambian Police Intervention Unit (PIU) officer whose team had been assigned to stop a demonstration organised by members of the United Democratic Party (UDP), an opposition party and vocal critic of Yahya Jammeh’s government.
In Jawara’s words:
“I was stopped by a gentleman in plainclothes who asked me to give him my phone. I asked him why I should give him my phone.” She continued further, “The police officer started dragging me and slapping me. They were beating me from the time I was arrested up to the time we arrived at the camp.”
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Fanta Jawara is married to Ebrima Jawara, the grandson of Dawda Jawara who was kicked out of power by Yahya Jammeh in the bloodless coup of 1994. She maintains that she was just a bystander when protests erupted and had nothing to do with it.
While many other innocent onlookers who were arrested that day have been released, Jawara remains locked up in the Gambia’s notorious Mile Two Prison, which has been investigated by the United Nations for reported torture and abuse. Government prosecutors accuse her of, among other things, a conspiracy to commit felony, rioting, unlawful assembly, and inciting violence.
Since the 1994 coup, President Yahya Jammeh has maintained an iron grip over the political fortunes of the country. In 1996, he transitioned from military coup leader to elected president in a round of elections that were anything but free and fair. When he was re-elected for a fourth presidential term in 2011, he reportedly told the BBC, “If I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so.”
Jammeh and his government have been accused repeatedly of major human rights violations. Following his orders in April 2000, Jammeh’s dreaded PIU officers opened fire on student demonstrators, killing 12 students and a journalist. Countless reports of disappearances and unlawful detention of opposition members abound. Jammeh was even linked to the massacre of 44 Ghanaian migrants in 2004.
Under his rule, Gambia has experienced a serious restriction of press freedom, with the enactment of draconian new laws that limit freedom of speech and control access to information within the country. Members of the press suffer widespread incarcerations, and in 2004, one of Jammeh’s closest military aides fatally shot the editor of the point, a Gambian popular tabloid.
Jammeh has targeted members of the Gambia’s gay community with particularly intense vitriol. He famously told a crowd in May 2015, “If you do it, I will slit your throat — if you are a man and you want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one would ever set eyes on you again and no white person can do anything about it.”
He has even begun to pick a fight with Senegal, the nation that almost completely surrounds his own. Meanwhile, back in the Gambia, Jammeh continues to spread the controversial and much-disputed claim that he has the power to cure HIV/AIDS, asthma, high blood pressure, and even treat infertility in women, to the utter chagrin of the international community. Part of his HIV/AIDS treatment programme reportedly requires patients to cease taking anti-retroviral drugs.
The Gambia has already been knocked of the list of countries eligible for the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which supports the growth of African economies by allowing imports from Africa easy access into the American market. Despite this and other international sanctions, Jammeh has apparently continued to thrive as president — reportedly, he even owns a luxury mansion in the United States. This proves that such sanctions mainly hurt the already impoverished Gambians.
Rather, the international community and especially the US has to save them from Jammeh’s delusions of invincibility by hitting him exactly where it hurts — by imposing travel bans on him and seizing his assets and those of his closest aides.
The continued incarceration of an American citizen for more than eight weeks is more than enough reason to act.