UN EXPERTS SAY THEY COULD NOT COMPLETE INVESTIGATIONS

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Upon arriving in The Gambia under the mandate of the Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteurs Christof Heyns and Juan Méndez were offered a guided tour to parts of the prison, according to a joint statement from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The independent experts – part of the “Special Procedures” of the UN human rights system – were then informed that “under no circumstances would they be allowed to visit the Security Wing, where [among others] the death row prisoners are held.” 

“Due to denial of access to the Security Wing of Mile 2 prison to visit those sentenced to lengthy sentences, including the death penalty, an inference must be drawn that there is something important to hide. This incident forced us to suspend this integral part of the visit,” the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, said. 

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Unrestricted access in one country but not in others would “clearly display double standards and undermine the mandates entrusted to us”, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan Méndez, said. 

The Gambian Government earlier this year, invited the two UN experts for a joint visit from 3 to 7 November. The experts are still expected to present reports on their visit to the Human Rights Council in March and June 2015. 

Mr. Heyns and Mr. Méndez arrived in the country planning to examine the current level of protection of the right to life in law and in practice, assess the situation regarding torture and other cruel treatment or punishment. 

Unfortunately, and they said despite a written agreement accepting the terms of reference of the two mandates, the government denied them access to certain sections of the first prison the two mandate holders attempted to visit. 

Having suspended visits to all places of detention, the two experts were unable to assess independently the conditions in any of the prisons or police stations, though they were still able to meet with people who have been detained or served their sentences in those prisons. 

“Throughout the visit, we received many testimonies from people who did not want to be identified out of fear for either their own safety or their families, and we have therefore asked the Government to reaffirm its commitment not to engage in any reprisals,” the experts said.

During their visit, Mr and Mr Heyns said they heard reports of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.

The Special Rapporteurs called on the government to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate these allegations. “Furthermore, judges and prosecutors, under a sense of legal obligation, should visit places of detention to locate detainees subject to a petition for habeas corpus relief or for bail.  They also had a responsibility to order medical examinations as soon as any suspicion of mistreatment arises and initiate prosecutions against those responsible for mistreating an inmate,” they said. 

“The ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard is seldom if ever examined to determine whether reasonable grounds existed, and the evidence obtained pursuant to an otherwise illegal arrest is challenged even less frequently,” the experts said.

“As a result, police arrest to investigate, rather than investigate to arrest,” they added. 

In their concluding remarks, the experts thanked the Gambia government for inviting them. “We are honoured and hope that our visit leads to the advancement of the protection of human rights in The Gambia. We stand ready to provide technical assistance to the Government in the areas pertaining to our respective mandates as the Government works to improve the legal and infrastructural conditions for the protection of the right to life and guarantees against torture in The Gambia, and to find solutions for some of the challenges raised today that uphold the rule of law, promote accountability for human rights violations and fulfil the right of reparation for victims. If the past is not addressed, one cannot prevent future violations. 

“We hope the recommendations contained in these preliminary findings and later in our reports to the Human Rights Council will serve as guidance in this endeavour, and we shall continue to monitor their implementation in our future reports.  We hope this first visit to The Gambia can open the door for renewed and strengthened engagement with the United Nations human rights mechanisms as a whole. We invite the Government to consider inviting other Special Procedures to visit the country.

“When The Gambia appeared before the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council last week it appeared that a fruitful dialogue on human rights could help The Gambia re-engage with the international community. This was our hope when we committed ourselves to this visit in good faith. While our visit has experienced serious challenges regarding unrestricted access and an overriding atmosphere of apprehension and even fear from many who engaged with us, we welcome the assurances we have received from officials at the highest level that there will be no reprisals and hope that the government will find our observations helpful for continued engagement on human rights.” 

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