Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) – When strongman Yahya Jammeh left The Gambia for exile after 22 years, new foreign minister Ousainou Darboe pledged the tiny nation would become the “human rights capital of Africa”.
His remarks came days after Jammeh’s forced departure in January, and followed the release of droves of political prisoners from the country’s notorious jails — the face of years of flagrant rights abuses under the mercurial leader.
But as the first anniversary approaches of the December 1 election that would eventually spell regime change for Banjul, AFP has learnt that a dozen soldiers are currently being held in Gambian detention far beyond the remit of the constitution, in some cases for months.
Three of those detained, Lance Corporal Abdoulie Bojang, Lance Corporal Abba Badjie and another soldier, Lamin Nyassi, were all picked up by the military police in July, according to their wives.
“He is accused of facilitating the escape of a soldier who was wanted in connection with a Whatsapp group chat,” Bojang’s wife Sunkaru Jarjue told AFP, an account repeated by Nyassi’s wife, Banna Jarju.
An official within the military who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to AFP a dozen soldiers were being held.
Although the men appeared before a judge on Friday, they have yet to be formally charged and are only expected to enter a plea of November 27.
The men’s prolonged detention is inextricably linked with suspicions of sedition and covert support for Jammeh from a faction of the army and intelligence services, but rights groups say the military figures are not exempt from the constitutional right to be charged within 72 hours.
A coalition of parties fielded standard-bearer Adama Barrow as their candidate in December 2016 elections, who ultimately defeated Jammeh and took over the presidency in late January.
But then, as now, there are concerns about lingering Jammeh supporters in the ranks of the army, evoked back in July by Colonel Magatte Ndiaye, the head of a Senegalese army contingent still deployed to The Gambia by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
He told AFP that rebel elements were intent on destabilising the country and working with exiled Jammeh-era top brass, though President Barrow has said such reports are “hugely exaggerated”.
The wife of one soldier arrested at the Farafenni army camp in September, nominally for failing to show up for work, believes his family connections ensnared him while maintaining his innocence.
“They asked whether he is still communicating with his uncle (Yahya Jammeh),” Tida Bajinka Jammeh told AFP in mid-November, adding her husband had only just been released.
Gambia Armed Forces Spokesman Captain Lamin Sanyang confirmed the detention of members of the Gambian Armed Forces pending investigation for “mutinous and seditious acts” revealed by audio recordings shared by Whatsapp.
“Some soldiers are arrested in connection with a Whatsapp page they have created to discuss amongst themselves,” Sanyang told AFP.
“Investigations are ongoing and once we get the facts, we will share it with members of the public at the appropriate time. They are still under detention pending investigation into the matter,” he added.
Minister of Information and Communication Demba Ali Jawo meanwhile agreed the men had been detained longer than 72 hours but referred to a “drawback clause” that allowed detention to be renewed every 14 days.
That response has not satisfied human rights defenders.
Mr Gaye Sowe, Executive Director of Gambia-based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, said the cases are “wrong, illegal and unconstitutional.”
“There is no way a provision of the Gambia Armed Forces Act or any other law can override any provision of the Constitution,” which provides a maximum three-day limit for police to charge suspects after arrest.
“This should have been done within 72 hours after they were arrested,” Sowe said.
The memories of state-sponsored rights abuses and military purges remain fresh in Gambia, where the NIA carried out torture and forced disappearances on Jammeh’s orders, according to rights groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
A struggling court case against the so-called “NIA nine”, a group of intelligence officials including Gambia’s dreaded former spy chief Yankuba Badjie and eight of his subordinates at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), may offer a potential clue to the military arrests.
Lawyers for Badjie, the most feared agent in the dock, have not appeared for the last two hearings, but the case will go ahead without them, the presiding judge said on Thursday.
The former NIA agents are accused of killing opposition activist Solo Sandeng in April 2016, sparking rare protests, but it has run into legal difficulties over what Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou has called “rushed” police work.
Future prosecutions of Jammeh-linked crimes, he said, must be watertight.