Torture and killing investigations by UN human rights team aborted

by Ousman Sillah

The official mission of the two United Nations Human Rights Rapporteurs to Christof Heyns Juan Méndezinvestigate torture and killings in The Gambia said they could not complete their work as the authorities have denied them unrestricted and unsupervised access to the places of detention.

This statement was made in a press conference convened by the two experts of the independent fact-finding mechanism of the Human Rights Council Special Procedures on Friday, 7 November, 2014 at the UNDP conference hall.

The UN Special Rapporteurs on extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Christof Heyns and Juan Mendez, respectively, were visiting the country from the 3 to 7 November 2014, at the invitation of the Gambia Government. Their mission, among other things, was to examine the current level of protection of the right to life in both law and practice, assess the situation and identify challenges regarding torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in The Gambia.

The Human Rights experts revealed that when they visited their first port of call, Mile Two prison, they were told that they would be given a guided tour to parts of the facility namely, the main yard, female and remand wings and that under no circumstances would they be allowed to visit the Security Wing.

“Due to denial of access to the Security Wing of Mile Two to visit prisoners with lengthy sentences, including those on death row, an inference must be drawn that there is something important to hide. This incident forced us to suspend this integral part of the visit,” said Mr. Heyns.

The Special Rapporteur on extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions said this is not how they operate and that if they were to accept it for Gambia and deny it for others they have visited or will be visiting then it means they are departing from the principles of unrestricted access which is a core element of their mandate. “This would clearly demonstrate double standards and undermine the mandates entrusted to us by the UN Human Rights Council,” he added.

The UN Human Rights expert said they can only undertake a mission when invited by State parties who signed the TOR which specifies “access to all prisons, detention centres and places of interrogation”.

He said the initial agreement was for them to come to The Gambia in August but that this was cancelled without any known reason.

He, however, welcomed the rescheduled visit, describing it as remarkable and encouraging.

Mr. Heyns described the development as unfortunate and a complete departure from the written agreement they had with the Gambia Government accepting the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the two mandates which require unrestricted, unaccompanied and unsupervised visits to prisons.

Immediately after this, he continued, they had a meeting with the Vice President and other senior government officials to re-state their position regarding Gambia’s commitment to the TOR on unfettered access to detention facilities and to ask the government to reconsider its position and allow them to continue with their work unhindered.

It was noted that the reason advanced by officials for the denial of access to the Security Wing was that the people held there have committed very serious crimes.

‘The response was that rules are rules and they have to be obeyed and that even the Vice President is not allowed to go to the maximum Security Wing,” Mr. Heyns said.

Confronted with such a challenge which affects a key element in their mission, the experts decided to suspend the visits to facilities but continue with the other aspects of their task which include meetings with officials, civil society, the media, judges, etc. who can share relevant information.

“It was not an ideal situation as time was short and we wanted to make the best under the circumstances,” said Mr. Heyns.

It was also noted that the UN experts were told that mobile phones and cameras were not allowed into the prison which is in breach of the procedures they apply in their investigations. “We need cameras to take forensic evidence such as marks on the bodies of persons alleging torture etc.,” said Mr. Mendez.

He added they do not take pictures of installations that are considered by the State as security sensitive.

Another important aspect which the UN Human Rights experts have sought for the commitment of government is on the issue of reprisals on those who spoke to them. “The Vice President assured us that there will be no reprisals,” said Heyns.

Mr. Mendez, a former prisoner of conscience, expressed his utter disappointment with the development, citing the example that he was accorded unrestricted access to jails and detention centres in all the countries he visited and even in Mexico, where there is so much insecurity and anarchy.

On whether they have engaged the government in light of the announcement made by the Gambia’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice to State parties at the recently held UPR that Gambia has invited the UN to come and investigate the killing of Deyda Hydara, the Special Rapporteur on extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions said their mandate covers all the cases that are brought to its attention. He applauded the development, adding that the independent investigators who would be coming must be given unhindered access to all sources of evidence to make independent and credible conclusions.

On the violations of the constitution regarding unregistered detention (disappearance) and the detention of persons beyond the 72 hours requirement, Mr. Mendez said this is rampant and that the State should address it.

The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment said his investigations have found that torture is a consistent practice carried out by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) especially in cases where there is perceived threat to national security or involves opponents of the party in government.

He said the NIA denies detaining people but admitted that some are held there until the police have space to keep them in their cells.

On the issue of the death penalty, the experts said they would recommend for its total abolition in the case of the Gambia which stunned the world when “out of the blues” it revokes the moratorium and selectively executed nine people whose cases have not exhausted the judicial appeal process. They added that this was in clear violation of their rights and international law as well. “Given the fragility of the moratorium in The Gambia, who can guarantee that its restoration could not be revoked again?” asked Mr. Heyns.

They concluded by expressing the hope that their visit will register positive changes and lead to the advancement of the protection of human rights in The Gambia.

The press conference was chaired by Madam Vivian Huijgen from the Dakar office of the UNHR Regional Bureau for West Africa.

The team presented their preliminary findings which dealt in detail with issues such as the Death penalty, Resumption of executions and conditional moratorium, Use of force, Impunity for extra judicial executions and enforced disappearances, Paramilitary groups, Public demonstrations and the use of force, Prevalence of torture, Lack of official registration upon detention, Lack of accountability regarding investigations, Role of judiciary and prosecutors, Arrest and detention powers, Forced confessions: evidence obtained under torture, Access to lawyers, Forensics, Complaint system, Prison conditions, National institutions, Ratification of UN treaties as well as other issues that will be addressed in the final report such as the threat to media, etc.

The full report will be serialized in subsequent editions. Meanwhile the full text of a news release on this matter by the UN human rights office is on page 6.