When the PDOIS leadership issued a clarion call for a mass release of detainees before the APRC commemoration of the 21st anniversary of the coup, we were simply articulating the sovereign wishes of family members whose incarcerated loved ones were under threat as the nation wondered why two Bills which were a threat to both civil liberties and political rights were put in the Public space in the month of June, 2015.
In short, before the prisoner release which is welcomed by the largest sector of Gambian society and advocated for without break by the PDOIS leadership, the nation was standing on a knife’s edge when it was put in the public space that the executive had published a Bill in the Gazette which aimed to amend Section 18, Subsection (2) of the Constitution, which indicates that the death penalty will not apply to crimes which are not associated with the use of violence causng death. Many people wondered why the government would wish to extend the death penalty to non- violent crimes which had not resulted in the death of a person. The general mood was that the executive was bent on extending the death penalty to all manner of prisoners. We explained the content of the Bill , argued that it could not be introduced in the National Assembly until it is published twice in the Gazette and the second publication not being less than three months after the first . We further clarified that the Bill could not become law until a referendum is held on it. Therefore, we began our advocacy for the rejection of the Bill at a referendum to be conducted by the IEC to combat the culture of executions. This was the first challenge.
The second bombshell was the publication of the Bill which aimed to introduce one million dalasi fee for the registration of political parties and other criteria which restrict the right to form and join political parties as enshrined in Section 25 of the Constitution as well as the introduction of non refundable deposits amounting to a million dalasi for candidates contesting the presidency, one hundred thousand dalasis for National Assembly candidates ; 50,000 dalasis for Mayoral candidates and 10,000 dalasis for councillorship candidates which tend to restrict the right of qualified Gambians to stand as candidates as enshrined in Section 26 of the Constitution . Many wondered why such amendments were being rushed just before the beginning of an electoral cycle provoking the initiation of a vigorous campaign by the PDOIS leadership for a rejection of the Bill..
The uncertainty heightened when the National Assembly passed the Bill after reducing the deposits of a presidential and National Assembly candidate to 500000 and 50000 respectively as well as to make them refundable. The debate continued as to whether the President would assent to the Bill or not?
Rumours of Plans for Fresh Execution Before The Release
The uncertainty reached its brink when the President told the Muslim elders that he was just implementing the laws aims at punishing convicts and that as far as he was concerned the law would continue to take its course.. This led to a rumour that the execution would resume. The rumour spread like wild fire causing uncertainty to spill over in every corner of the society and the media abroad. The PDOIS leadership was a focal point for enquiries. We had to sum up the mood against executive intolerance and impunity which was characterised by detaining innocent relatives of insurgents and maintaining a culture of detention without trial. It was improbable that any leader who was remotely sensitive to the mood of the populace would proceed with execution. We predicted a mass release of prisoners as the option the government would take to give its supporters a breathing space as they found it increasingly difficult to defend some of the actions of their leadership.
To those who could not predict the trend, the statement of the President on 22nd July, 2015, struck like a thunderbolt from the blue. Those who heard it went into a state of euphoria. As one released prisoner put it,: “The President stole the show.”
However on second thought he should be able to realise that releasing people whose liberty is at stake to unite with their loved ones is not a show, especially when it is taken into consideration that their incarceration was a life and death question.
Even though, there are many opinions being expressed on the scale of the release in our view the scales of Justice would lose its elasticity if it is not tempered with mercy. The exercise of prerogative of mercy for all categories of prisoners without exception is designed to temper justice with mercy. It is underpinned by the fact that human beings are capable of making laws to create penalties which exceed the weight of crime committed, perpetrate miscarriage of justice trumped up charges or the delivery of not so judicious decision by the administrator of the law. On the other hand, convicts who are subjected for fair hearing before independent and impartial tribunals are also capable of repentance and transformation within seconds, minutes, days and years.
An act may be evil but the human being is always capable of doing good when given the right environment. Hence the exercise of prerogative of mercy should not exclude any category of prisoners.
Hence the announcement was welcomed by many because of the time bound assertions, but most people waited to see whether it would happen in practice.
The PDOIS leadership shared the cautious anticipation and optimism of the people and the joy of the families when they were reunited with their loved ones.
Few would doubt that the decision was in the right direction. Life and liberty however are irretrievably linked. We therefore wish to caution those who are released that they should not be struck by shock to find that partners have moved on to cope with their absence. Forgiving and forgetting would be a valuable instrument.
Lack of adequate income could also be unsettling. One may have to return to a hand to mouth existence, requiring endurance to keep hope alive. PDOIS would wish to give assurance that another Gambia is possible to build in the very near future, if the vast majority opts for it.
Being pardoned should not be equated with the negation of one’s sovereignty. One should never accept to be dehumanised.liberty is the freedom to run one’s life without being obliged to owe obedience to any other sovereign person. Hence each released prisoner should aspire to surmount all challenges to become one’s sovereign, productive and dignified self.
As those released celebrate the joy of being reunited with their loved ones, the PDOIS leadership is sensitive to the plight of detainees like journalist Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay and numerous others who are still under detention without trial, and do call on the government to prepare a checklist on detainees without trial and release them without delay. An end to the practice is fundamental if impunity is to be effaced and a society created where the executive and its agents would be protectors rather than violators of fundamental rights.
In the same vein, there are others whose relatives have disappeared without trace and need to come to terms with the reality of what happened to them. They do not know whether to keep hope alive or give up. They are still asking for explanation and are likely to continue to ask about the whereabouts of their loved ones until someone tells them the truth.
There are those, like Amadou Sanneh, who are expecting the executive to act without fear or favour, affection or ill will in implementing the principle of equity in the exercise of mercy.
We are still concerned with the bodies of the insurgents that should be handed over to the families.
The executive is being called upon to reflect on such concerns .
ON ELECTORAL REFORM
While progress has been made, through prisoner release of death row inmates, in giving indication that the Bill to extend the death penalty to crimes not associated with the use of violence causing death, may be as good as dead, the Elections (Amendment) Bill has been assented to on the 20th July, 2015. It is now published in the Gazette as law. Hence there is no trend towards dialogue on electoral reform. Unilateralism still prevails on this score. PDOIS will analyse the Act and continue the advocacy for its repealing to inspire the voters to prepare themselves for a more inclusive Gambia in 2016, where proportional representation would be introduced to guarantee women and youth participation in representative institutions and all restrictive laws repealed .
In our view, Presidents have the right to prepare themselves for life after the presidency by building the best of constitutional instruments, institutions and standards of governance which they could be remembered for with pride and nostalgia, or prepare themselves to be presidents for life, in which case they manipulate constitutional instruments and state institutions to promote self perpetuating rule.
PDOIS is a signatory to the proposals and demands for electoral and constitutional reforms prepared by six opposition parties. We are convinced that it’s a better reform package than that offered by the APRC. We will continue to promote such an agenda as an alternative. Parties which are committed to such an agenda should make a choice whether to legitimise the unilateral action of the APRC or challenge it to promote electoral reform based on dialogue and consensus building . No law is permanent. With advocacy, they could be changed and refined to address the enlightened interest of the people.
The decision to decongest the prisons by releasing 227 of different categories of prisoners is in line with PDOIS Agenda 2016.
It is our view that prisons are meant for people who are threats to the larger society, and who need to be incarcerated to protect others while their rehabilitation is facilitated.
If the APRC Government is committed to good governance, it would go further to embrace the following policies and programmes in the PDOIS Agenda 2016.
It reads: “Our commitment to Republican and Democratic values, which uphold the Sovereignty of the individual citizen, obliges us to focus on building a society centred on the protection of liberty, dignity and self-worth, that is, all the fundamental rights and freedoms of a sovereign person, by ensuring that state institutions, agencies and natural persons are committed to such an endeavour.
5.2 Policy Directives:
No person is sovereign who is not free to give and receive information, and who is not free from arbitrary arrest and detention. No person is sovereign who is not free from coercion, torture and fear of injustice. We are therefore committed to the eradication of laws which hinder freedom of expression, and the nullification of state policy directives which hinder dissemination of divergent views and dissenting opinions by the state and non-state media. We are committed to the eradication of laws, institutions and law enforcement practices which hinder freedom of expression and undermine the security of a sovereign person, or do not protect and enlarge liberties, rights, security, safety and freedom of sovereign people. We are committed to the enactment of laws, establishment of institutions and law enforcement practices which enlarge and protect rights and freedoms. We will ensure that conventions on fundamental rights and freedoms that are ratified by parliament will automatically be domesticated by promulgating relevant provisions in the constitution.
Institute a four-year Human Rights Protection and Enlargement programme, characterised by the enactment of a Freedom of information Act to remove secrecy from public administration and make administrators accountable to the public they serve and responsive to enquiries of the media that are supposed to keep people informed.
Review the Criminal Code to decriminalise provisions that are not reasonable or justifiable in a Republic or Democratic society, and rationalise penalties to be equivalent to crime committed.
Conduct reform of law enforcement agencies and practices.
Conduct reform of prisons and prison administration. Introduce community service as alternative to imprisonment measures to eradicate retributive justice. Since no sovereign citizen would choose to occupy a government post of a killer of killers, the death penalty will be abolished and life imprisonment maintained as the severest punishment for a crime.
Build community police relationship.
Establish a National Human Rights Commission to monitor and ensure protection against violations of Human Rights.
Establish a National Police Service Commission to exercise direction and control over the police force. It will be given mandate to appoint senior officers of the force on the basis of merit. An Inspector General of Police will be appointed with the approval of the head of state, but once appointed may only be removed on grounds of misconduct or infirmity to be determined by a tribunal and subject to approval by the National Assembly.
Any finding and recommendation for dismissal will be subject to approval by the National Assembly.
A National Prison Service Commission will exercise direction and control over prison administration. A Director General of Prisons will be appointed with the approval of the head of state, but once appointed may only be removed on grounds of misconduct and infirmity to be determined by a tribunal and subject to approval by the National Assembly.
Imams of Major mosques and Priests of major churches, Union leaders and leaders of registered civil societies or associations, will be honorary human rights commissioners and social auditors who will visit jails, prisons and other places of detention to check conditions and make representation for compliance with laws, or propose improvement or reforms in the administration of public institutions such as prisons.
A National Council of media Practitioners would be established as a self- regulatory body for media practitioners who will have no judicial powers but will exercise persuasive influence aimed at promoting professionalism and integrity in the performance of duty, and resolving disputes to decongest the courts and make representation to promote the welfare of media houses and practitioners.
5.5 Action plan:
Speedy court appearance is the best guarantee against forced confession through torture or other forms of duress.
Courts shall be required to take judicial notice of any detention beyond the 72 hours established by the constitution, for a person to be held without bail or court appearance and count the act as duress.
A sovereign person has a right to change a government, but has no right to kill and incite hatred to change a government. If he or she kills, or destroys property, he or she will be charged for killing or destroying property. Hence there will not be any need for a crime of treason under a republic. If anyone incites hatred against another, the aggrieved person could file a civil suit for damages. Hence there is no need for a crime called sedition in a sovereign Republic.
Educating people on their fundamental rights and freedoms and promoting respect for and observance of those rights by the state institutions in particular and all natural persons in general, will take centre stage and civil laws will be developed to address violations of rights and freedoms, through alternative dispute resolution measures and if need be, the courts in their civil jurisdictions.
Human rights defenders will receive maximum media coverage and protection to ensure that violations are reported, exposed and violators named and shamed.”
This is the transformation programme PDOIS intends to put in place to promote and protect Civil rights . We therefore hope that the climate of reunion which is cultivated by the prisoner release would be extended by drafting and enacting a Bill on General Amnesty which should reassure Gambians abroad that they would be offered legal protection when they come home.
A climate of tolerance and openness is the road to peaceful co-existence of people and peaceful transfer of power from one party to another and one generation to another. Only presidents who prepare themselves for life after the presidency could foster such tolerance and openness. Is Gambia heading towards such a trend? The contradictory signals do not give a clear picture. The future will tell. History will give its verdict. The future however belongs to the people. The stand they take will determine the destiny of our country.. Each has the duty to choose ones side in this battle for a better Gambia and take a stand .There is no middle road.