In times of security crisis, check government closely lest human rights suffer!

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By Madi Jobarteh

A coup d’état is undoubtedly illegal as a means of change of government both by national and international laws. A coup, plotted or attempted is a significant security concern as it aims to end the life of an existing government in place. It poses a clear and present challenge to the security of any nation and so must be handled by the government. This is why in the wake of a coup, there is always heightened and visible security and armed troops movements and presence in society.

But it is also a fact that events such as coups, terrorist attacks, armed insurrection and similar armed violent incidents pose clear and present danger to human rights. This is because during such security situations, governments are also notorious for exploiting it to clampdown on perceived and real opponents and enemies both within the security and civilian sectors. This is why in times of security crisis, the government must be checked to prevent human rights violations and impunity.

For example, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in America, the US Government came up with several laws and measures that were found to hugely damage human rights. In Egypt, after the assassination of former strongman Anwar Sadat, the new regime led by Hosni Mubarak imposed a perpetual state of emergency since assuming office in 1981 until 2010 when he was removed through popular uprising, the Arab Spring in 2011.  In both the US and Egypt like many other countries where security crisis emerged, there followed massive abuses of human rights such as illegal arrests and detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and summary executions among other infringements on the civil and political rights of scores of innocent people.

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The Gambia itself is not new to such situations as we had seen how the Jammeh regime had used coups, fake or real, to target fellow military officers to eliminate. Similar abuses were also meted out to journalists, politicians and business people and indeed ordinary citizens. Therefore, while the Gambia Government has a duty to prevent, investigate, detect and prosecute anyone involved in a coup, it is necessary that all citizens are also alert to ensure that countering the coup is done in line with the Constitution and international laws to which the Gambia is a party.

In this regard, all citizens must be concerned by the statement delivered by the National Security Advisor Abubakarr Suleiman Jeng at Defense Headquarters on Thursday December 29, flanked by the head of NIA Ousman Sowe and the CDS Yakuba Drammeh and the DIG Momodou Sowe. It is concerning that Jeng refused to accept questions from journalists even though the event was a press conference. There is no security justification for him to do so. Rather such poor decisions only serve to undermine the integrity and credibility of Government information and actions. International best practice requires that governments are transparent in their operations.

Even more concerning is the fact that since the alleged coup plot was officially announced on December 20, and arrests made, the detained officers continue to be held incommunicado. This is in total violation of their rights as set out in the Constitution under Section 19. These officers have a right to access their families and lawyers. Secondly, their continued detention must be sanctioned in line with the due process otherwise their current detention is arbitrary and illegal. It is important and necessary that the National Human Rights Commission reminds the Government of its legal obligations to uphold rights. The Minister of Justice Dawda Jallow has a responsibility to adequately advise these security agencies to abide by the law.

Another major concern is the fact that Jeng refused to disclose the names of the members of the so-called Joint Investigation Panel. International law and best practices recognize transparency as an asset in all matters including security matters. Not only should the public have a right to know the names, titles and institutions of the panel members, but by identifying them will also create public trust and confidence in the process. This will serve to guarantee the integrity and credibility of the panel and the investigation as a whole.

Above all, transparency engenders performance, delivery and accountability which in turn give rise to fair play and justice. If the members are known publicly, it will serve to encourage and guide them to be honest in their investigation. Therefore, it is a huge blow to the credibility of the announcement of a coup and its investigation that the Government decided to hide the identity of the panel members. Where there is no transparency and accountability the tendency for suspects and innocent citizens to be incriminated and abused and then denied justice is a high possibility.

Furthermore, another huge concern is the claim that there are civilian collaborators at home and abroad. It begs the question as to how did Jeng come to know that when the panel was inaugurated two days before his statement, i.e. on December 27 according to the Government Spokesman Ebrima Sankareh? Has the Government been already interrogating the detained soldiers? Who has been interrogating them since their arrest? Has their privacy been compromised by looking into their phones, emails and other correspondences without a court order? These are fundamental rights issues which is why these suspects need their lawyers to be present to ensure that their rights are not violated. Independent observers also need to present to prevent abuse.

Therefore, the Gambia Government must be advised to abide by the truth and ensure transparency in this process. Where individuals could face treason charges and capital punishment, no stone should be left unturned and no rule or right must be ignored to ensure that there is no undue harm caused to anyone. The Government in general, and in particular the security agencies, i.e., GPF, GAF and NIA must recognize that they do not have unlimited and unchecked powers to do as they wish just because there is a security situation. Rather they have a duty to abide by the rule of law and protect human rights in line with international standards.

In this regard, I wish to call on the National Human Rights Commission, The Gambia Bar Association and TANGO to be extremely vigilant in monitoring the situation to ensure that rights are not damaged. Similarly, I call on the National Assembly Select Committee on Defense and Security to play their oversight role more effectively at this time to ensure that GPF, GAF and NIA are acting in line with the rule of law and human rights standards.

I urge all citizens, CSOs, the media and political parties to stop being complacent but to be alert on this matter to ensure that due process takes place in line with international best practices and human rights standards. Human rights are already in dire conditions in this country. We should not accept and allow human rights to suffer even more because of this alleged coup plot. When we allow the rights of suspects to suffer, rest assured none of our rights is safe.