By Foday Samateh
The arrest and detention of Momodou Sabally raise grave and disconcerting concerns about individual rights and the rule of law in The Gambia.
The circumstances are too reminiscent of the shameful and lawless days of the dictatorship in which citizens viewed or perceived as enemies of the state were targeted for arbitrary arrest and detention, unjust prosecution, and unjustifiable incarceration. The Police, the Ministry of Justice, and the Judiciary — in the guise of enforcing, executing, and interpreting the laws — were mobilized and deployed in the mission to haul in, persecute, and jail innocent citizens whose only crimes were exercising their fundamental rights and liberties of free speech and free association guaranteed by the Constitution.
The state’s claim of arresting and detaining Sabally for purportedly saying in the social media the UDP “will take the country from President Adama Barrow even before the Local Government elections are due” completes the resemblance to the disgraced dictator’s playbook. So much for the mantra Never Again! So much for free speech in a democracy!
The underpinning facts of the situation are unmistakably plain. From day one, the powers be at the State House have fixated on Sabally with two minds. The first, as a potential asset they wish to deal in the status quo to utilize him. Second, as a threat they wish to deal with to neutralize him. Since Sabally has chosen to rebuff attempts to co-opt him, which is his absolute right, the second option of making an example of him becomes the order of the day.
That was why he was singled out, along with just few others, for discrimination by the President in banning him from working for the government when many others who had been named for doing far worse in office during the former regime keep getting recruited back into public service. If the executive directive had passed the smell test, every individual in identical or similar circumstances should have also been barred from serving in the government rather than be rewarded with presidential appointments for pledging allegiance to Adama Barrow and his ruling NPP. And everyone knows any day Sabally decides to join NPP, the presidential ban on him will be rescinded immediately.
It is equally true that Sabally has been a special political nightmare for the government not only as an outspoken member of the United Democratic Party (UDP), but also he is an unapologetic critic in his own right as a prominent public figure in the country. He takes no prisoners, pulls no punches, and sees no sacred cows when he advocates for his beliefs and opinions about the national interest.
To arrest and detain him without any discernible probable cause beyond the constitutional time limit of 72 hours like some common or dangerous criminal — especially given the fact that he hasn’t been charged with any crime yet — is a blatant abuse of state power as well as a flagrant violation of his civic rights and personal freedom. And the insinuation that he might have some kind of tenuous connection to the recent alleged coup plot has no basis in any conceivable reality. It would be a laughable fiction of imagination if the matter weren’t so serious. Sabally is a patriot and a man of peace through-and-through. While he never shies away from political confrontations, his chosen weapon has always been words and only words.
He has been on record time and again stating that he opposes so much as protests against government simply because they may get out of hand and spill into violence and disturbance of the public peace. Furthermore, he hasn’t said in the social media anything in the past five weeks that he hasn’t uttered in one form or another in public in the past five years. To deliberately misconstrue or misinterpret his political opinions and pronouncements as some form of evidence of a crime on his part is the real crime here.
The just and right thing to do is to restore his rights and freedom to him without any further delay. Release him unconditionally for him to be with his loved ones and for him to carry on with the business of his life.