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October 14, 2010

Rights Groups Condemn Detention of Gambian Human Rights Defenders

by Anne Look

Two Gambian human rights activists have been detained in a Gambian prison since Monday. The activists, who specialize in the protection of women and children, are accused of theft, but human rights groups say their imprisonment is part of systematic government attacks on human rights defenders in the Gambia.

Gambian police took the two human rights workers, Dr. Isatou Touray and Amie Bojang Sissoho, into custody Monday. Banjul's Magistrate Court denied bail Tuesday and remanded the two women to prison while the investigation is ongoing.

The two women are leaders of the Gambia Committee for Traditional Practices, known more commonly as GAMCOTRAP.

The group focuses on women and children's rights and has been particularly active in the fight against female genital mutilation, which is still widely practiced in the Gambia.

The two women are charged with stealing $42,000, but international human rights groups say their detention is part of ongoing attempts by President Yahya Jammeh and his government to restrict human rights work in the country, particularly when it comes to FGM.

Gambian journalist, Amie Joof, is Executive Director for the Inter-Africa Network for Women, Media, Gender and Development in Dakar.

"GAMCOTRAP has been very vocal, and the president is supportive of female genital mutilation," said Amie Joof. "It is not the first time that he has targeted GAMCOTRAP. Some years back, he went publicly on national TV and radio on a feast day when the elders went to the state house, which is the normal practice to pray for the country, he said it publicly that those women who leave their houses to go and campaign against female genital mutilation in the interior of the country, he could not guarantee their security and their safety. That was a threat."

Joof says the womens' detention comes at a particularly troubling time. The government is looking to amend its NGO Affairs Act. It is a move that rights group fear will further restrict NGO's activities in the Gambia.

Joof says the president threatened human rights activists with arrests last year, and the situation is getting worse.

Last month, rights activist Edwin Nebolisa was sentenced to six month imprisonment and hard labor on the charge of giving false information to the government. His organization, Africa in Democracy and Good Governance, was suspended.

"They are launching a systemic attack on the NGOs," said Joof. "They would want to discredit NGOs that are vocal by saying that they are corrupt, by saying they are thieves. It is a direct attack on the NGOs that are vocal."

Joof says GAMCOTRAP has succeeded in convincing 100 circumcisers to publicly put down their knives and abandon the practice of FGM.

She says the $42,000 that the women are accused of stealing was funding from a Spanish organization. She says GAMCOTRAP, as part of its program, gave the money to former circumcisers to help them start up businesses and find new ways to earn their livings once they had given up the practice of FGM.

In May, Joof says a government commission examined a dispute between the Spanish organization and GAMCOTRAP about how the money was used and said the accusation of theft was unfounded.

"But after submitting their report, the commission was dissolved immediately and some of the members dismissed from the service of the Gambian government," said Joof. "So the government set up a second commission which has not yet submitted its report. Then why should they be arrested before the submission of the second report?"

Joof says the two women should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and should be released on bail.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in the capital, Banjul.