On 30 December 2014, a group of disaffected soldiers launched a coup against the government of Yahya Jammeh, which was foiled by forces loyal to the Gambia's president. The pre-dawn attack against the State House was led by Lieutenant Lamin Sanneh, an army deserter, and former Commander of the State Guards Battalion. Lt. Sanneh and two of his colleagues were killed in the attack while another (Private Modou Njie, now sentenced to death) was captured.
Later on, two Gambian-Americans were charged under the Neutrality Act for their alleged involvement in the botched coup. Cherno Njie, 57, a U.S. businessman of Gambian descent living in Austin, Texas, and Papa Faal, 46, a dual U.S.-Gambian citizen from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, were charged “for their role in a recent attempted coup”, the Justice Department said in a statement. Both men had reportedly traveled to the Gambia in connection to the coup, but escaped back to the United States via Senegal.
Authorities in Banjul have now confirmed the conviction of up to six soldiers with sentences ranging from death to life imprisonment. The sentences were handed down by a secret court martial constituted shortly after the abortive coup on 30 December 2014. The soldiers have been tried on a number of charges including treason and mutiny related offenses.
According to state broadcaster, Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), Lt. Col. Sarjo Jarju and Private Modou Njie are sentenced to death while Capt. Abdoulie Jobe, Capt. Buba Bojang, Lt. Amadou Sowe and Capt. Buba Sanneh all have life sentences. The director of public prosecution, SH Barhourn, led the prosecution team while the accused were represented by two unnamed lawyers from the National Agency for Legal Aid (NALA).
Human rights groups have raised concern over the trials and have called on the Gambian government not to carry out the sentences immediately. In 2012, the government executed nine of the 42 death row inmates at the time, turning against 29 years of moratorium. However, President Yahya Jammeh later agreed to a “conditional moratorium” after domestic and international pressure.
The Gambia absents itself from the UN's Universal Periodic Review. Amnesty International notes that the government of Gambia has only accepted 93 of the 171 recommendations at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva.
In November 2014, the United Nations said that two UN human rights experts were forced to suspend an integral part of their visit to the Gambia when they were denied access to parts of a prison and prevented from completing a torture and killing investigation during the first trip ever to the country by such an independent fact-finding team, according to a press release from the UN rights office.
“Death sentences imposed on soldiers accused of participating in December’s attempted coup d’état in Gambia are a cruel violation of the right to life and the right to a fair trial,” Amnesty International said.
“Gambia’s justice system is deeply flawed and we have concerns about the fairness of the trial, given that it was held in secret. Amnesty International is calling for the death sentences to be commuted to terms of imprisonment, pending a re-trial which meets internationally accepted fair trial standards and does not include the possibility of a death sentence,” it noted.
Commenting on Amnesty International's statement on Facebook, Ebrima Manneh said:
The Amnesty International statement said it all. In a flawed justice system, a verdict is always questionable especially in a trial done in secrecy. The international community must act swiftly and sternly against this regime that continues to terrorize the citizens.
A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville said they are deeply concerned about the death sentences. “We hope that the six detainees will be allowed to appeal, as is their right, and we call upon the Gambian Government to maintain its moratorium on the use of the death penalty.”
Commenting on the UN's reaction, Kairo news website reader Karamo asked the UN to be more forceful with President Jammeh, who has been in power for more than 20 years:
the UN should be more blunt and forceful with Jammeh’s regime. This is not the first time he is being sending innocent people to their deaths for no good reason. He should be made to know that he is only human in one way or the other for a start. The Gambian people need external help to free themselves from Jammeh. God help them…
Wondering how such an important case could be held in secret, Malick Njie wrote on Gambia's online news site JollofNews:
Gambia is an interesting country. How come a vital trial like this held in a closed door military court? May Allah save the people of this great country from monster Yahya Jammeh…..
Another Kairo News reader, Maxs, said the selfless sacrifices of those challenging dictatorship in Gambia will be honored and remembered:
The criminal enterprise in Banjul should be removed by any means necessary . The innocent soliders should be freed . While most Gambians continue to approve the dictatorship through complete silence and nonengagement to savage the country , those who sacrifice their lives and families to the cause of freedom and liberty will always be remembered as true and patriotic sons of The Gambia . Their selfless sacrifices will be honored in the smiling coast in very near future.
Amadou Maneh commented:
No one and no place deserves jammeh. I bet even hell would be coerced to accommodate him.
On Twitter, Sam Phatey simply asked:
— Sam Phatey™ (@samphatey) April 7, 2015