By Francois Patuel, Amnesty International’s campaigner for West Africa.
I’ve just spoken to a human rights activist working in the Gambia. Just publishing his name would be enough to get him arrested. His powerful testimony shows just why we urgently need to act to stop the intimidation of people working to uphold human rights in the country. This is what he told me:
“Right now, the situation in the Gambia is alarming. All the President’s actions seem to totally disregard the rule of law. Arrests, detentions, torture, enforced disappearances and killings are all too common, and affect all types of people.
“The background to all of this lies in President Jammeh taking personal control of state institutions and processes. These institutions and officials now function according to what they perceive to be satisfactory to the President. Because of this, human rights work has become the most risky activity in the Gambia.
“The president has always resented human rights and democracy, and anyone who works in this area. Journalists, members of the opposition and people who stand up for human rights are described as unpatriotic, illegitimate and enemies of the state.
“There is constant surveillance of real and perceived human rights activists, as well as journalists and opposition groups. There are times I’ve been talking on my phone and heard other voices or noises in the background from the other end. I’ve come home and my kids would tell me that a gentleman came by and was asking ‘friendly questions’. Intelligence agents mingle with participants at our events, and record activities with secret cameras. What’s more, my emails have been hacked in the hope of getting incriminating information.
“If you campaign on human rights, not only is your own life in constant danger, but also the lives of people you know and work with. Many activists have come under heavy pressure from family, friends and neighbours to stop their human rights work. In some cases, people have even been abandoned by their family and friends.
“Colleagues, friends and various members of my family have cornered me on several occasions to tell me to just keep quiet and look after my family. People have reminded me of my wife and children, and asked who would take care of them in the event of my disappearance or death. Many people, out of genuine concern, have literally begged me to get away from human rights work.”
Right now, defending human rights in the Gambia is extremely risky. On 22 July 2014, President Jammeh marks 20 years in power, and Amnesty is joining with other human rights organisations to call on his regime to allow space for political opposition and freedom of expression. Please take action – stand alongside defenders of human rights in Gambia by adding your message of support to our Tumblr page.