December 5, 2014 at 11:34 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Obama administration response to Gambian human rights abuses criticized

Washington Blade, Barack Obama, Gambia

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet Gambian President Yahya Jammeh at the White House on Aug. 5, 2014. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

Gambian activists on Thursday criticized the Obama administration over what they maintain is its lack of response to anti-LGBT persecution and other human rights abuses in their West African country.

Banka Manneh, chair of Civil Society Associations Gambia, noted during a roundtable at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Northwest Washington the European Union in 2012 called upon President Yahya Jammeh to implement 17 reforms after his government executed nine prisoners. These include the repeal of the death penalty and ensuring freedom of media in his West African country.

The EU earlier this year delayed a 150 million euro aid package to Gambia.

“I have to really say unfortunately on the United States end we haven’t seen much progress,” said Manneh. “Most of the progress that we have had so far has been on the European Union side.”

Manneh and the other Gambian advocates who took part in the roundtable called upon the Obama administration to impose a travel ban against Jammeh, members of his family and inner circle and government officials. They also said these sanctions should also target Gambian lawmakers.

“Those are the ones passing these obnoxious laws that we are talking about,” said Amadou Scattred Janneh, a Gambian human rights advocate who was arrested in 2011 for distributing pro-democracy t-shirts. “They ought to pay a price too.”

Janneh also urged the U.S. to freeze Jammeh’s assets and to suspend military cooperation with his country.

“We want the U.S. to coordinate actions with allies and finally the U.S. government to support groups working to change the Gambia to a nation of laws and one that respects the fundamental rights of all its citizens,” said Janneh.

A State Department official last month expressed concern over a draconian bill Jammeh signed under which those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” face life in prison.

Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, on Thursday said in a statement the U.S. “is deeply concerned by continued reports of human rights abuses” in Gambia that include the “aggravated homosexuality” law and authorities targeting people because of their perceived sexual orientation.

“Protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and we will be guided by these values as we respond to these negative developments in the Gambia,” said Meehan. “Such actions are inconsistent with international standards and deal a setback to the Gambian people and all people who value human rights. The United States calls on the government of the Gambia to respect all human rights, repeal discriminatory legislation and cease these harmful practices.”

Manneh criticized Obama for hosting Jammeh at the White House during an August summit that drew dozens of African heads of state to D.C.

“Jammeh can grab somebody today and send him to Mile 2 Prison that he calls his hotel,” said Manneh, referring to an infamous Gambian prison where he said authorities routinely subject prisoners to torture and other human rights abuses. “Then the next day he hops on a plane and comes and meets Obama at the White House for dinner. If that is not a mixed message, I don’t know what else is.”

“On one hand we are making the effort to delegitimize him,” he added. “On the other hand Western governments are meeting him and having photo ops with him, pictures of which are being sent back home, put on t-shirts and people make a big celebration out of it.”

Fatu Camara, a journalist and Jammeh’s former press secretary who fled to the U.S. last year after authorities charged her with what the BBC described as sedition, also took part in the roundtable.

She said Jammeh’s security guards assaulted her and others outside the Hay-Adams Hotel in D.C. in August during a protest against the Gambian president’s human rights record. Camara said she suffered a concussion during the incident and subsequently received a $3,000 hospital bill.

Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights said Jammeh’s security guards “had free reign to beat them up.”

“Then the very next day…there’s President Jammeh standing, smiling on the red carpet with our president and shaking his hand,” said Smith. “There’s a huge gap between rhetoric and action and the fact that President Jammeh is too comfortable.”

R&B singer Erykah Badu in May earlier this year faced criticism from Smith and other human rights advocates over her decision to perform at a Gambian music festival that Jammeh had been scheduled to attend.

Jammeh describes gay men as ‘vermin’

Gambia is a small West African country nestled between Senegal along the Gambia River.

Jammeh came to power in a 1994 military coup.

He said during a 2013 speech at the U.N. General Assembly that homosexuality is among the three “biggest threats to human existence.”

Jammeh in February described gay men as “vermin” during a speech that commemorated his country’s independence from the U.K. He went on to say the acronym LGBT “can only stand for leprosy, gonorrhea, bacteria and tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”

Camara said Gambian authorities have arrested a 16-year-old boy and others they suspect of being gay.

She noted a handful of gay Gambians have fled to Senegal and Guinea. Camara said others are afraid to leave their homes because they are afraid the authorities will arrest them.

“Gambians cried, but the world did not take note,” she said. “He [Jammeh] has finally put the law into the books of the Gambia, and has already demonstrated that he would follow through with his words.”

‘Our people are dying’

Janneh was held in Mile 2 after his 2011 arrest. He said on Thursday he saw the way authorities treated his fellow inmates whom they suspected were gay.

“It comes with cost,” said Janneh.

Janneh stressed Jammeh’s ongoing LGBT crackdown should be seen within the context of what he described as “a dying regime engaging in a fishing expedition.”

He said groups within the Gambian diaspora have made an “unprecedented” effort to highlight Jammeh’s human rights abuses to the EU and the United Nations, noting Brussels’ 2012 decision to delay aid to the West African country. Janneh further noted the Gambian government last year cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in an apparent move to cultivate closer relations with China.

Senegal refuses to expel Gambian dissidents from the country.

Janneh added the Gambian economy continues to decline and people in the West African country face looming food shortages.

“These elements have combined to push Jammeh to a point where he’s looking for scapegoats,” said Janneh. “The LGBT community seems to be a very convenient one.”

Manneh agreed, referring to the EU demands that Gambia improve its human rights record.

“[Jammeh]’s decided to use the LGBT community as a pawn in his game, pretty much saying why the European Union and all these western countries are going after me is pretty much to make sure that I allow for gay marriage to take place in this country,” he said. “This is a country where there is no other media out there that will tell the people a different story. He has total control of the media and so he controls the messaging and he gets to bamboozle them in these ways.”

Manneh and his fellow Gambian advocates said in response to a Washington Blade question that the human rights situation in their homeland should concern the U.S. government — and the American people.

“If there’s any unique opportunity for the U.S. to prove to the world that it does not just talk the talk, but to walk the walk when it comes to these fundamental values of human rights and justice around the world, Gambia is one case where it’s a low hanging fruit where it can do it, where it can be effective,” said Manneh. “It will get the job done and it will give the U.S. that legitimacy of position around the world, easy.”

Camara was more direct.

“Our people are dying,” she said. “They’re being tortured everyday and you have nowhere to run to. Countries like the Gambia look up to big countries like the United States of America.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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