His Excellency Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh
President of the Republic of The Gambia
C/o The Embassy of the Republic of The Gambia
1155 15th Street, NW, Suite 1000
Washington, D.C. 20005
Via facsimile: (202) 785-1430
We are deeply concerned about the well-being of our colleague "Chief" Ebrima B. Manneh of the Daily Observer, who has not been seen or heard from since his arrest seven months ago, according to sources in the media and human rights organizations.
Manneh, the Daily Observer's State House correspondent, was arrested by plainclothes security agents at the paper's offices in the capital, Banjul, on July 7, 2006, according to sources who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. His whereabouts, the reason for his detention, his legal status, and his health have not been disclosed. Authorities deny detaining Manneh, although CPJ sources say police are holding him incommunicado outside Banjul.
Manneh was arrested a week after the African Union summit of heads of state, which was held in Banjul. His arrest was linked to his attempt to reproduce in the Daily Observer a BBC online report critical of the government, according to CPJ sources. The report featured a photo of you with the caption "Meeting host Yahya Jammeh came to power through a coup," and it discussed a proposed AU charter on democracy that opposes military coups and constitutional amendments to extend terms in office, according to CPJ research. The pro-government private daily never published the BBC report, according to local journalists. Shortly before his arrest, Manneh had an altercation with the newspaper's managing editor, Saja Taal, according to CPJ sources. Taal disputed the description, telling CPJ that Manneh did not report for work that week.
A CPJ source said Manneh was initially taken to a police station in the northwestern coastal town of Bakau, about nine miles (15 kilometers) from Banjul. In mid-January, the private triweekly Foroyaa and the Ghana-based Media Foundation of West Africa reported that Manneh was being held at a police station in the eastern border town of Fatoto, more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Banjul. The story claimed that Manneh was initially held at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and then at the Mile Two prison in Banjul before being transferred to various police stations throughout the country. Government officials did not respond to the report, according to local journalists.
Aziz Bojang, a spokesman for the national police, told CPJ in January that he was not aware that anyone by Manneh's name was in custody. Nor was Bojang aware of media reports about Manneh's status. Asked if police were investigating Manneh's disappearance, Bojang replied: "We don't have any basis to begin an investigation since no one ever filed a formal complaint."
Sources close to Manneh's family said his relatives have visited several police stations around the country in search of the journalist, but officials have not documented their inquiries. Family members also made inquiries with the Daily Observer and the NIA, but they received no information, according to local journalists.
Throughout 2006, authorities demonstrated an alarming pattern of holding journalists incommunicado, while publicly denying the detentions, CPJ research shows. At least five journalists were imprisoned in NIA detention facilities during the year despite official denials, according to CPJ research. Daily Observer editor Malick Mboob, for example, remained in NIA custody for nearly five months while the agency refused to account for him.
In December 2006, the Daily Observer quoted a senior NIA official as saying that the agency had either released or transferred to the police and courts all of its prisoners in a move to "improve the agency's relations with the public." Manneh was not among the affected prisoners, according to local journalists.
During last summer's AU summit in Banjul, you were among the leaders to sign a declaration marking the 25th anniversary of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. The document contained a pledge from heads of state to rededicate themselves to "ensuring respect for human and peoples' rights." Yet the secret detention of Manneh, without charge or access to a lawyer, highlights a glaring denial of due process.
With Banjul serving as headquarters of the AU's African Commission of Human and Peoples' Rights, the actions of your government take on symbolic regional importance. We have seen no evidence to indicate that Manneh has committed a crime. In keeping with the spirit of the commission, therefore, we call on you to do all in your power to investigate Manneh's whereabouts and to ensure his immediate release.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.