Jesse Jackson Helps Free 2 From Gambia Prison

Jesse Jackson is pictured. | AP Photo
Published: September 21, 2012

DAKAR, Senegal — Two Gambian-Americans serving long prison sentences are now in the United States after the Rev. Jesse Jacksonmade a personal plea to Gambia’s erratic president, Yahya Jammeh, to release them this week.

Mr. Jackson traveled to the tiny West African country, considered one of the most repressive on the continent, after an international outcry over Mr. Jammeh’s announced plans to conduct a mass execution of dozens of prisoners on his country’s death row.

Nine prisoners have already been killed. However, several days before Mr. Jackson arrived Sunday, Mr. Jammeh announced a moratorium on the executions, after expressions of disapproval from the European Union, the United Nations and other international groups.

The two men Mr. Jackson helped release, Amadou Scattred Janneh and Tamsir Jasseh, had been high-ranking officials in Mr. Jammeh’s government who were convicted on the routine charge of treason leveled against those who fall out of favor with it. They were held in the country’s notorious Mile 2 Central Prison.

In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Jasseh, who had been head of Gambia’s immigrationagency, described his six and a half years in prison as a “very horrible experience, inhumane,” saying he had been “tortured horribly.” Mr. Janneh, a former information minister, said Mile 2 was “one of the worst prisons in the world.” Neither man had been on death row.

Mr. Janneh once taught at the University of Tennessee, and Mr. Jasseh is a veteran of the United States military.

Mr. Jackson said his personal connection to the Gambian president provided an opening in persuading the leader, a former army colonel and wrestler who seized power in 1994, to release the two men. “I’ve known him and met him on several occasions,” Mr. Jackson said.

Human rights groups routinely denounce Mr. Jammeh’s government for its systematic use of torture, jailing of journalists, repression of free speech and rigging of elections.

Freedom House, in its latest report on Gambia, cited “voter intimidation and government control of the media,” saying “journalists are subject to arrests, harassment and violence.” It noted the “torture of prisoners, including political prisoners,” as well as “severe suppression of the opposition, media and civil society.”

Shortly before Mr. Jackson’s arrival, two leading independent newspapers were shut down by Mr. Jammeh’s government. Two journalists were arrested over having sought a permit to protest the executions. Earlier in the month, the government expelled a visiting BBC West Africa correspondent who had come to report on the executions.

“These executions were a distraction from growth,” Mr. Jackson said in an interview, noting what he said was the country’s high economic growth rate.

“They’ve got some good things happening there,” Mr. Jackson said. “There are some arrows pointing upwards.”

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