By Kemo Cham
The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has found the Gambian judiciary wanting in a number of areas as regards fair trial standards and the application of criminal law.
In a report released February 23, captioned: ‘Gambia: Freedom of Expression on Trial’, IBAHRI raises concerns with respect to the Gambia’s compliance with fair trial standards and the application of criminal law to the seven Gambian journalists ‘‘who legitimately and peacefully exercised their right to freedom of expression.’’
This report by the international body which is dedicated to the promotion of the rule of law worldwide is the result of a one man observation mission dispatched to the Gambia, in response ‘‘to concerns regarding fair trial standards in the Gambia,’’ following the indictment of the seven Gambian journalist affiliated to the Gambia Press Union, who were been tried on sedition charges.
‘‘In July 2009 the IBAHRI became aware of charges being made against seven journalists in the Gambia for alleged sedition and criminal defamation arising out of an article published in response to a televised statement by President Alhaji Yahya Jammeh, in which he rejected any state involvement in the unexplained killing of Mr Deyda Hydara in 2004,’’ the statement by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute said. ‘‘Six of the journalists were convicted of all charges on 6 August 2009 and sentenced to two years without an option of a fine. On 3 September 2009, President Jammeh, who professed to be acting purely within the spirit of the Holy Month of Ramadan, pardoned and released the six journalists.’’
Accordingly, IBAHRI assigned Mr Paul Richmond, a barrister of England and Wales, said to be extensively experienced in trial observations, to monitor and observe the proceedings. And based on the report of Barrister Richmond, which took account of his observation of the proceedings and subsequent interviews, the IBAHRI concluded that ‘‘while parts of the trial proceedings such as behavior of the judge were fair, others give rise to concern.’’ Among these are ‘‘lack of reasoning behind the judgment; excessively harsh sentencing; proceedings being held in camera; multiple bail applications; and removal of the case to the High Court being grounded in reasons of public policy and foreign relations, rather than being rooted in law.’’
‘‘Beyond the conduct of the proceedings themselves, we have serious concerns that the charges against the journalists were ever brought at all, and consider the charges themselves, the conviction and subsequent pardon to be a manifestation of state-sponsored harassment and intimidation of Gambian journalists who had sought to exercise their internationally guaranteed right to non-violent freedom of expression’, the report quotes Juan Mendez, Co-Chair of International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.
The report noted that that case in Gambia was of particular importance in light of a report launched by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) earlier on 21 January 2010 which concluded that 2009 could be considered one of the worst years for press freedom on the African continent.
‘‘The IFJ Report seeks to encourage African Governments and decision makers to prioritize press freedom and freedom of expression as vital components of good governance and state development,’’ Martin Šolc, IBAHRI Co-Chair said. And he added, ‘‘we welcome the IFJ’s initiative to draw attention to the lack of adherence to these internationally recognized standards, in the Gambia and across the African continent.’’
IBAHRI was established in 1995 under the honorary presidency of Nelson Mandela. It focuses on the promotion of the rule of law, thereby seeking to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law in a variety of ways, including training of lawyers, judges and prosecutors in human rights law and international humanitarian law, among others. IBAHRI also liaise closely with international and regional human rights organizations and produce newsletters and other publications to highlight issues of concern to the worldwide media.
By Kemo Cham