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The Gambia's Increasingly Isolated President Frees Almost All Prisoners

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Public Domain photo by the White House uploaded online by Wikipedia user Alifazal.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Public domain photo by the White House uploaded online by Wikipedia user Alifazal.

President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia has reportedly emptied the country's notoriously overcrowded prisons and vowed to turn a new page. In a televised address on the 21st anniversary of his toppling of democratically elected President Dawda Kairaba Jawara on 22 July 1994, Jammeh said he has pardoned all convicts between 1994 and 2013.

Jammeh's prison pardon also comes with a general amnesty for all exiled political activists. It is not clear as to how many convicts are affected, but the announcement indicated that those pardoned include inmates on death row, which was estimated to be at 38 in August 2012.

Below is a YouTube video from The Gambia Inquirer of the address by Jammeh:

Jammeh's announcement has so far generated mixed reaction, especially from some of those affected. Many Gambian dissidents based abroad have dismissed the so-called magnanimity as a mere political maneuvering.

Jallow Mathew wrote on Facebook:

Yahya Jammeh says he has forgiven all dissidents. Are you kidding me? Forgive us for what; speaking out against his killings, robbing the country blind, incarcerating everything that breaths, and much, much more. Yahya Jammeh is in a tough spot and he knows it. He is scared and is resorting to cheap propaganda to save his dying regime. My advise to Yahya Jammeh is to immediately resign so that together with the political parties, we will create a government of unity for 18 months, while we prepare for the first free elections in twenty years. This is our common position. It is non-negotiable.

Commenting on that thread, Karamba Touray dismissed Jammeh's amnesty as nonsense:

It is all absolute non sense . His fate is sealed and we will ensure he ends up like every dictator and tyrant: down and out.

However, some voices are of the view that Jammeh should be commended for his gesture. Bakary Badjie wrote:

Bravo and thanks to President Jammeh and those who convinced him to extend such huge gesture to the many prisoners he has pardoned. From convicts of treason, dead row inmates, drug traffickers and abusers, rapists etc. However one analyses the announcement of the President, the fact remains that it should be welcomed and he should be commended for doing such and certainly there is reason to celebrate as all those in the categories he mentioned will unexpectedly be reuniting with their families. Forget the politics, view it from a social angle. Can you imagine if one of them was your son, brother or husband.

He further added:

For many years we miss appearing in the news for a positive reason, in the coming days, we will. My hope is that this will the beginning of new life in The Gambia, a life of freedom and respect for human rights. It should also be a time for reconciliation as we were in the verge of been socially and politically divided nation.”

Sophie Sarr also thought the news was worth celebrating. She wrote:

Praise God. I cannot help it but had to shed tears of joy when I read about this great news. Though am not related to any of these people. I am just here to cerebrate with all the women whose husbands have been released and with all the kids who are privileged to re-unite with their fathers today. This is the healing we need as a country and I pray that God in his powers will heal all hearts today FOR THE GAMBIA OUR HOMELAND.

Barely a week ago, Jammeh vowed to execute all prisoners on death row arguing that crime is on the rise. In a rather more twisted move, Jammeh reportedly revoked the pardon he had given 85 prisoners in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. However, authorities later clarified that there was a mistake in identity for some of the released prisoners, leading to rearrest.

HE Alagie Jobe has a question for President Jammeh:

Excellent move Mr President… But what about those illegally detained, and those made to disappear, don't they deserve to be pardon too if they are still alive Mr President?”

The Mile II prison, which also houses the insect-infested maximum security wing, is where most political prisoners, drug convicts and death row inmates are kept. In November 2014, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that two of its special rapporteurs, Christof Heyns and Juan Méndez, were denied access to certain sections of a prison, which was later said to be the maximum security wing.

On 22 July 2015, rights group Amnesty International released a reported detailing what it described as a sharp deterioration of human rights abuses during Jammeh's 21st year in power.

Whereas families of the pardoned families will be happy to reunite with their loved ones, there is high level of uncertainty among many.

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