The Gambia: surveillance, alleged arbitrary arrest and charges against HRD Madi Jobarteh (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of the Gambia on 10 November 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. Regrettably, the Government did not reply within this timeframe. If a reply is received, it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.

After the communication was sent, on 23 November 2023, Madi Jobarteh reported to the police who told him that he no longer needed to report to them. They informed him that his file had been sent to the office of the Attorney General, and that he remained on bail. The police refused to give back either of the phones that they first seized during his arrest. The HRD has not received any contact from the police since that day.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

BACKGROUND

Topic: the surveillance, alleged arbitrary arrest of and charges against the human rights defender Mr. Madi Jobarteh.

Mr. Madi Jobarteh is a human rights defender who has worked for over 30 years to promote increased accountability and transparency in governance, as well as advocating for the rights of women and girls. In response to threats he received in relation to his human rights work, Mr. Jobarteh spent one year living outside of the Gambia from 2016 – 2017. The former executive director of the Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Gambia (TANGO), Mr. Jobarteh is currently serving as the country representative for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

ALLEGATIONS

On 2 October 2023, Mr. Jobarteh posted an article he had written on Facebook, in which he responded to a recent speech made by H.E. President Adama Barrow on 29 September 2023. In the article, Mr. Jobarteh expressed particular concern at comments about democracy reportedly made by the President: “the state of democracy in the country has reached an excessive point, with people freely expressing their opinions without accountability.” The President’s reported speech also included remarks about specific media outlets and he is quoted as saying “no one will be allowed to insult others in the Gambia without facing consequences. Even on radio, if someone calls in and engages in insulting behaviours, we will take appropriate action, including arresting the owner of the radio station. Moreover, on social media, we will put an end to the practice of insulting others. Even if individuals are released on bail by a judge, we will re-arrest them.” In his article, Mr. Jobarteh asserted the importance of democracy and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

On 5 October 2023, Mr. Jobarteh’s article was published on the news website, The Standard, as an opinion piece under the heading “Adama Barrow’s dictatorial wings must be cut!”.

On 6 October 2023, Mr. Jobarteh received a phone call from the police, requesting him to come to the office of the police headquarters in Banjul, to which he responded that he could not as he was sick with pneumonia. The police reportedly responded that they would then come to his house instead. Following the call, four officers allegedly from the State Intelligence Unit (SIU) and the Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU) went to the home of Mr. Jobarteh, in a pickup truck with no license plate and tinted windows.

The officers claimed they wanted to question Mr. Jobarteh about “some of his Facebook posts”, but would not specify which ones, and reportedly requested that he go to the police station to be questioned. Mr. Jobarteh repeated that he was ill, and that he was not obligated as it was not a formal request, nor had he committed any crime. The officers reportedly conferred with their supporters and allowed Mr. Jobarteh to remain at home but directed him to report to the police headquarters once he was recovered.

In the days following this, Mr. Jobarteh and his home were reportedly subjected to surveillance by unknown men in a pick-up truck with tinted windows and no license plate, parked a few meters from his house. When Mr. Jobarteh’s neighbours would attempt to take photos of the vehicle, it would reportedly move to another area. On one occasion, as Mr. Jobarteh’s 10-year-old niece left the house, one of the men reportedly asked her whether he was inside the house. Following this, Mr. Jobarteh called the Police Superintendent, who had led the group of officers that came to the house days before. As the Police Superintendent did not answer, Mr. Jobarteh sent him a text message, requesting for the men to vacate the area. The Police Superintendent reportedly denied knowledge of or having directed officers to carry out the surveillance. Following this conversation, the vehicle left the area.

On the morning of 9 October 2023, five police officers, some of them reportedly armed, forcibly entered Mr. Jobarteh’s home, reportedly to arrest him. The police officers reportedly threatened to use violence if Mr. Jobarteh did not go with them. Mr. Jobarteh did not resist arrest and asked that he be allowed to take his medication with him, which the officers refused. As Mr. Jobarteh’s mother, sister and daughter attempted to take photos of the arrest, they were reportedly physically assaulted by the officers. The phones of Mr. Jobarteh and his daughter were then confiscated by the officers, with no reason provided.

Mr. Jobarteh was then taken by the police to Jabang Anti-Crime Facility and placed in judicial custody. For 12 hours, Mr. Jobarteh’s family had no information of his whereabouts, before they were eventually informed of his situation, and his brother was permitted to see him. Mr. Jobarteh was first permitted to see his lawyer approximately 24 hours after his arrest. Mr. Jobarteh was interrogated by the police, without the presence of his lawyer, during which he was reportedly asked about the aforementioned article he had written. The officers reportedly asked about three phrases from the article in particular: “a bunch of irresponsible, dangerous and self-delusional gibberish”, “urge all citizens to stand up and speak out” and “the immature rantings of a president”.

Still suffering with pneumonia, Mr. Jobarteh’s condition began to deteriorate, and on 10 October 2023 he was rushed to a clinic in Fajara, where a doctor referred him to a hospital in Westfield, where he was admitted. Mr. Jobarteh was under medical supervision for 24 hours, and ultimately spent two nights in the hospital.

On 12 October 2023, Mr. Jobarteh was discharged from hospital and returned home. He was granted bail due to the expiration of the 72-hour detention limit but was instructed to report to the police on 26 October.

On 26 October 2023, Mr. Jobarteh reported to the office of the Special Investigations Unit at the Police Headquarters in Banjul, as he had been requested to. The police refused to return his and his daughter’s phones, claiming they were required for the investigation, and reportedly asked Mr. Jobarteh to unlock his phone, which he refused to do. Mr. Jobarteh reminded the police officers that the article he had written was accessible online, and so he did not understand the need to access his phone. Mr. Jobarteh’s bail was extended until 9 November.

On 9 November 2023, Mr. Jobarteh reported to the Special Investigations Unit as per the bail requirement. There he was informed by police that he was being charged with seditious intention (Article 51), incitement to violence (article 59B) and false broadcasting and information (article 181A) of the Criminal Code. The phones of Mr. Jobarteh and his daughter were retained by the police, purportedly for the purposes of the investigation, despite Mr. Jobarteh reiterating that the article in question was accessible online. Mr. Jobarteh’s bail was extended until 23 November, when he shall report again to the Special Investigations Unit.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we express our concern in relation to the arrest, alleged arbitrary detention of and charges against Mr. Madi Jobarteh, and the surveillance and intimidation that he and his family have reportedly been subjected to by the authorities. It would appear that Mr. Madi Jobarteh has been discriminately targeted for the exercising of his right to freedom of expression by critically responding to the President’s remarks, in the interest of promoting democracy, accountability and transparency in governance. In accordance with international law and standards, individuals exercising the highest public authority, such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and opposition, by virtue of the office they hold.

We are further concerned that the arrest, alleged arbitrary detention of and charges against Mr. Madi Jobarteh constitute an escalation in the reported threats and intimidation he was previously subjected to for legitimately exercising his right to freedom of expression, as raised by Special Procedures mandate holders to the Government of the Gambia.

We are concerned that the charges against Mr. Jobarteh are without legal basis, and do not meet the strict tests of necessity and proportionality as required by international human rights law, and therefore may be viewed an attempt to intimidate Mr. Jobarteh and his family, and prevent him from continuing his legitimate human rights activities, and exercising his right to freedom of expression.

We are also concerned by the President’s remarks regarding freedom of expression and certain media outlets in the country.

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