Gambia-Enforced Disappearances


For over a decade, Gambian human rights groups in the diaspora have documented enforced disappearances. They provided Human Rights Watch with a list of hundreds of human rights victims, including 43 who allegedly “disappeared” between 1994 and 2015. Most of those listed as disappeared were former members of security forces suspected of involvement in attempted coups. 

Chief MANNEHA former member of Gambia’s security services, who was illegally detained in solitary confinement from 1994 to 1995, described to Human Rights Watch the NIA’s wide-reaching powers:

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as “the arrest, detention or abduction of an individual by state authorities or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, which places the person outside the protection of the law.” Among the rights an enforced disappearance violates are the right to liberty and security of the person, including protection from torture and other ill-treatment; and, the right to a prompt, fair, and public trial.

In his March 2015 report, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture concluded that in the Gambia, “the purpose of unacknowledged detention is to facilitate torture or summary execution or both.”

In the past decade, Gambian security forces have been implicated in several enforced disappearances, including of a journalist, two American-Gambian citizens, and a former army chief. On July 11, 2006, alleged NIA officers arrested Ebrima Manneh, a reporter for the Daily Observer, at the paper’s offices just outside of Banjul. His whereabouts are still unknown and the Gambian government has repeatedly denied ever having him in custody.

In 2008, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice ordered the Gambian government to produce Manneh and to pay compensation of $100,000. Gambia has yet to implement the court ruling. A former member of the military, who worked for the Jungulers for five years and was witness to extrajudicial executions, believes he may have seen Ebrima Manneh shortly before he was killed:

The night the [Jungulers] brought Haruna Jammeh and many others, the border patrol came with a guy and one of the Jungulers said he was Ebrima Manneh. I don’t know if it was him because I didn’t know him personally. The army doesn’t mingle with journalists. He was in jeans and a t-shirt. He looked like he’d been tortured. They took him away. And that evening one Junguler told me, “We used machetes and hammer and nailed into his head to kill that man.” All of them are drunk when they do those things.

On July 9, 2015, family members reported that brothers Muhammed Fadel Hydara and Hatabu Hydara were picked up from their homes in Serekunda by people they believed to be members of the NIA. They have not been seen since but are believed by family members to be held at the NIA.

In June 2013, two US citizens of Gambian nationality, Alhagie Mamut Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, went missing in Gambia. Some 20 years earlier, they had left Gambia for the United States to study at the University of Washington in Seattle. They later settled with families in the US and became US citizens. Family members said they returned to Gambia hoping to invest in a cashew export business. They were last seen in the resort town of Kololi, 20 kilometers west of the capital. Family members have written numerous letters to President Jammeh asking for information about the whereabouts of the two men. Juka Ceesay, sister of Alhagie Ceesay, told Human Rights Watch they have yet to receive any information from the Gambian government.

Gambian authorities have been unwilling to share any information regarding the whereabouts of the two men and have rejected multiple offers from the US government to provide assistance in investigating the men’s disappearance. Juka Ceesay said: “It’s very difficult for a family when this happens – you feel lost. We want the US government to continue to put more pressure on the Gambia government to push them to release these men.”

Col. Ndure Cham, former chief of staff of the armed forces, who was implicated in leading the 2006 attempted coup, went missing after having fled towards the border with Senegal in August 2013. 

Local media also reported the April 2013 disappearance of two Gambians, Saul Ndow, and former Member of Parliament, Mahawa Cham, allegedly abducted while in Senegal’s southern Casamance region.

Many people are held incommunicado for months before being released or before their whereabouts in detention become known. For example, as part of a crackdown after the 2014 coup attempt, the NIA and the military picked up dozens of family members, friends and acquaintances of alleged coup plotters, including elderly parents and a 16-year-old child, and held them without any contact with the outside world for several months.

Several family members tried to find their relatives, first by visiting police stations and then attempting to get information from the NIA. The authorities provided no information as to the whereabouts of their relatives. At least one family member was threatened with arrest if he continued to make inquiries about his missing relatives.

In May 2015, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances transmitted seven cases under its urgent action procedure to the Gambian government in respect to five people reportedly abducted on January 1, 2015, one man reportedly abducted on January 4, 2015, and one man reportedly abducted on January 9 or 10, 2015, by men believed to be members of the NIA.

On July 23, 2015, a dozen family members of the alleged coup plotters were released as part of a presidential pardon announced on the July 22nd anniversary of the 1994 coup that brought Jammeh to power. The president also pardoned at least 26 men who had been convicted of treason from 1994 to 2013, and several civil servants convicted of crimes including economic crimes, abuse of office, and sharing false information.

A former member of the military implicated in the 2014 attempted coup told Human Rights Watch that the NIA picked up his mother and another family member in January 2015. While his relatives were eventually released in July 2015, he described his relatives’ pain at not knowing the fate of their loved ones:

They think about how many months have passed and they just cry. They don’t know where they can go to see our mum because they don’t have any information. They don’t know whether she is alive or not.

Death Penalty

Gambia imposes the death penalty in a manner that violates international law. The death penalty was abolished in Gambia in 1993; but, it was reinstated in 1995 after President Jammeh came to power, in response to a reported spike in violent crime and alleged cases of treason. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty – no one had been executed since 1985 – remained in effect until 2012. A constitutional requirement to review the death penalty 10 years after its enactment has been ignored. Two decades since the penalty’s reinstatement, the National Assembly has yet to review it.

Since 2012, prisoners sentenced to death have been executed in violation of their fundamental due process rights, including ensuring that their right to appeal had been exhausted. On August 19, 2012, Jammeh vowed publicly to execute every prisoner on death row – at least 47 – by September of that year. In the middle of the night on August 23, security officials took a woman and eight men on death row, including two Senegalese citizens, from their cells in the security wing of Mile 2 prison and executed them. Those executed included three former military personnel who had been convicted of treason and murder.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions said in his 2015 report that “the only difference between those who lived and those who died seems to be pure luck. The killings were, in other words, arbitrary and thus unlawful.” Their appeals had not been fully exhausted, and according to Amnesty International, neither they, nor their family or their lawyers, had been informed in advance of the execution date.

Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former minister of information, was a prisoner in Mile 2’s security wing at the time of the executions. He told Human Rights Watch:

Armed men carrying handcuffs and leg irons came into the security wing. I saw them take Dauda, Malam Sonko, Abubakar Yabo. As they led Lamine Dabo away, he shouted to me, “Amadou! We are being executed!” We learned about another one, Tabara Samba, in the morning when a prison officer came to me crying and told me she [Samba] had also been executed. The prison officials were emotional about the incident. They dealt with us on an everyday basis and this had not happened for 25 years.

After a widespread international outcry, Jammeh announced a conditional moratorium on executions to be reinstated if violent crime in the country increased. However, in March 2015, Gambia rejected recommendations from 13 countries during its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council to abolish the death penalty.

In March 2015, a secret military court sentenced three soldiers to death (and three other soldiers to life in prison) on charges of treason, desertion, conspiracy, and mutiny, relating to their involvement in the December 2014 failed coup. The court martial, closed to the public, appeared to lack basic due process.

Currently, Gambia’s constitution allows for the death penalty only in cases of serious and violent offenses resulting in the death of another; the Criminal Code, however, allows for the death penalty in cases of treason, and requires it in cases of murder.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility.

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