NEW YORK — Fatou Camara thought she was safe. The mother of two had built a successful career on Gambian television and had the president's ear. Then, on September 15, she was suddenly detained and thrown into a roach infested prison cell and held there for 25 days. The Gambian authorities accused her of sedition for allegedly smearing the president in statements to an opposition website, and eventually set her free on bail. She immediately fled the country, first for Senegal and then settled to the U.S. Camara denies the allegations, and calls the charges a political set up.
"I know some people are tortured, but I was not," Camara told BuzzFeed by phone from Georgia. "For this to happen to someone like me is what scares people. People were not expecting this. I worked for the president, and we've been very close."
The west African nation of the Gambia, home to just 1.8 million people, is mainly known for its beautiful beaches — but it is also home to one of the world's most ruthless, and eccentric, dictators, Yahye Jammeh. Opposition activists say Jammeh rules the Gambia with an iron fist. Political opponents are frequently harassed, arrested, tortured, and put through sham trials, while Gambians are kept in a constant state of paranoia through tight media control, according to human rights groups. Jammeh bans most foreign journalists and human rights organizations from operating in the country. He has also claimed he can cure AIDS, and has outlawed homosexuality.
"The world is looking at the Gambia as not very important, but the Gambian people need help," Camara said. "You cannot speak out in the Gambia. You can be killed. You can be arrested. You can be kept in prison for a long time. You can disappear. Nobody will help. Everybody is too scared."
Lisa Nikolaus, Amnesty International's Gambia expert, says that several recent developments indicate an increase in government repression. In June, the government increased its hold on the media by raising the penalty for derogatory statements against the government to 15 years in prison. The summer before, on Aug 23, Jammeh ordered the secret execution of nine death row inmates, reportedly by firing squad. It was the Gambia's first executions in nearly 30 years. An estimated 38 more prisoners remain on death row, several of whom are reportedly Senegalese nationals. A prominent Gambian Muslim cleric, Imam Baba Leigh, spoke out against the executions in December, calling them "un-Islamic." He promptly disappeared for five months, and refused to discuss his circumstances upon reappearing.
Reports by political opponents outside of Gambia also describe an increasingly erratic leader. Jammeh has ruled the country since 1994, when he seized power in a military coup, and has since been reelected in four elections, widely criticized by the international community. Jammeh is said to act outlandishly, making statements comparing himself to God. He is also notorious for hiring and firing ministers, and reportedly imprisoning people for the slightest personal offense. In Oct 22, he reportedly ordered three political prisoners to confess to sedition on national TV.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they find he's had a serious mental problem, but as a leader he's been able to get away with it," said Amadou Scattered Janneh, a former information minister who now heads the Coalition for Change-Gambia (CCG) from exile in Georgia. He has been in the U.S. since September 2012.
Gambian police arrested Janneh in June 2011 for distributing T-shirts that read, "End to Dictatorship Now." At the time, Janneh was an organizer with the CCG in collaboration with Gambians abroad. Janneh told BuzzFeed he was held in the Gambia's notorious Mile 2 Central prison along with the nine prisoners later executed. He has published an e-book, Standing Up Against Injustice, recounting the horrific atrocities he witnessed during 15 months in prison. Janneh is a U.S. citizen, and his arrest raised international outage. Amnesty International and the Reverend Jesse Jackson ultimately led a successful campaign for his release.
Amnesty International and Gambian diaspora civil society groups, like CCG, have called on the European Union to adopt tougher measures, like targeted sanctions and travel bans, against the Gambian regime and to ensure international access to Gambian prisons. So far, however, the responses have been tepid, with no official announcements on a larger strategy.
"It's not hard to make a case against the regime," Janneh said. "But when it comes to action, that's where we've been missing."
Amnesty International has not been able to work inside Gambia since 2008, according to Nikolaus. Instead, the human rights organization conducts research from Senegal and abroad, where they can work more freely. But Gambians can also face trouble in the Casamance region of Senegal, which lies along the Gambian border and is ripe with anti-Senegalese government rebels, several of whom are supported by Jammeh, according to activists.
Nana Ndow, a 28-year-old Gambian consultant living in Brazil, has started an online campaign for the release of her father, Saul Ndow, who went missing in Senegal last April, along with a Gambian opposition leader, Mahawa Cham. Ndow told BuzzFeed by telephone from Rio de Janeiro that she suspects that agents working for Jammeh in Senegal abducted her father while he was on business in the country and smuggled him through Casamence back into the Gambia. The president, she said, "has always said that he wanted my father dead or alive." Nana and her family have contacted the Senegalese government regarding her father's whereabouts. They have so far received no response. Her family now fears he is dead.
Amnesty International has investigated the case, but cannot confirm Ndow's allegations, Nikolaus said, since collecting and verifying information in the Gambia is a near-impossible task.
"It's really sad that families feel like they have to go public like this because they are not getting support from the Senegalese and Gambian governments," Nikolaus said by phone from Senegal regarding Ndow's case. "The UN and regional African countries need to provide support for getting them information on their loved ones."
Camara told BuzzFeed she will not go back home as long as Janneh remains in power.
"You cannot have a country where all the people are running away," Camara said. "There are a lot of Gambians who want to go home."