Gambia: Mass Executions Awaken Worry Round the World

Photo: RNW/Damien Glez
A cartoon of President Yahya Jammeh holding a human skull.

It's been sleepless nights for a young man in the Netherlands ever since Gambia's president announced that 47 prisoners would be executed this month. The news haunts this man, who immigrated to Europe for love and who on a past visit to his native Gambia fell into the violent hands of corrupt policemen.

The young man does not want his identity to be revealed, so we will call him Idrissa. To protect his safety, no other civilian names or specific dates are cited either.

At his home in the Netherlands, Idrissa listens to Freedom Radio, a Gambian internet radio station that broadcasts from a studio in the United States. He hears reports on the current situation in his home country and can't help but flashback to some years ago, when he had returned for his father's funeral.

Waking life

This cannot be happening, he remembers thinking, hoping to awaken from a nightmare. But this was real life in Gambia.

"Twelve or thirteen people seized me and beat me relentlessly. There were known as the narcotics brigade," Idrissa says. "One of them was pointing a gun to my head and told the others: 'Let's kill him and bury him in the backyard.'"

He remembers how the chief of the brigade had said: "Don't do anything to him! Just tie him up!"

They took him to the police station. Three minutes later, an officer walked in holding a plastic bag. "It was hashish!" Idrissa exclaims in outrage. "He threw it on the table and said to me: 'We found these drugs in your car.' I have never smoked or drunk any alcohol. I do not take those substances and neither does my family."

"I was framed," says Idrissa. He reports that the brigade stole his cell phone and his money, and that he was thrown in jail, where he went for days without any food or drink.

"Either we lock you up for eleven years or you pay a fine," Idrissa recalls being told by a man at the central prison. "I replied that I did not want to spend eleven years in jail for something I didn't do. The whole saga cost me a trifling 8,000 euros," he adds sarcastically.

Eight thousand euros bought him back his freedom - although he had not committed any crime to warrant being denied it in the first place. The young man does not even want to consider what might have happened if he was unable to pay the fine.

A totalitarian regime

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power since a successful coup in 1994, is accused of intimidating the opposition and electoral fraud. Over the past few weeks, his decision to execute political prisoners has received strong condemnation by the international community.

"Gambia is ruled by a totalitarian regime. The police are corrupt; phones are tapped and internet cafés are monitored," says Idrissa.

When Gambians talk about their president, they tend to use dozens of different nicknames. As Idrissa explains: "We have specials names for him, like Lamin Banjul. We are very careful in our conversations. Some call him Papy, as in papa, and others call him Tony."

One-man show

After a recent Skype conversation with his best friend, Idrissa declares: "My friend said to me: 'Tell the journalist exactly what is happening in Gambia.' The whole world must know that it's a one-man show."

Reflecting on the situation, Idrissa adds: "The entire Gambian population is affected. Gambians living abroad are not really happy today. Look at me talking about democracy. I am free to say whatever I want. I am free to talk anyone I want. This is what I also wish for people living there."

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A cartoon of President Yahya Jammeh holding a human skull.

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