Independent Managing Editor Alagi Yoro Jallow was honored as a Guest speaker,at a conference held in Boston. The conference centered on torture, which attracted speakers from different sectors. Alagi Yorro Jallow,Nieman fellow at Harvard University and Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.Keynote speaker Joshua Rubenstein,the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International,USA. Below is Mr.Jallow’s full speech.

Speech by Alagi Yorro Jallow,Nieman fellow,Harvard University,Exiled Managing Editor,The Independent Newspaper,The Gambia.

The Boston Center for Refugee Health &Human Rights at Boston Medical Center.

June 19, 2007

Good evening, ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed a deep honour to be asked to come and grace this ocassion with a speech on torture. Let me, first of all, express my thanks and appreciation to the organisers of this important forum for inviting me to come and share with you some thoughts on the question of torture which is still widely practiced in many countries in the world.

I would like to dedicate this speech to all the families who have lost loved ones to torture and who, to this day, have not known where the dead bodies of their loved ones are being buried.

May I also congratulate institutions like Amnesty International, Interights, Human Rights Watch,Boston Center for Refugee Health &Human Rights, for their outstanding work as watchdogs, as campaigners and defenders of human rights and as part of our collective and individual consciences as an international community.

Indeed I have been asked to speak to you today on the theme of torture. The question now arises: what is torture?

In short, torture is one of the most serious violations of a person’s fundamental rights. It destroys their dignity, body and mind and has far-reaching effects on their family and community. Despite the absolute prohibition of torture under international law, its practice remains widespread, particularly in places out of public view.

Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere. Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right.

The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130 other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within their custody or control.

Yet torture continues to be practiced around the world by rogue regimes whose cruel methods match their determination to crush the human spirit. Beating, burning, rape, and electric shock are some of the grisly tools such regimes use to terrorize their own citizens. These despicable crimes cannot be tolerated by a world committed to justice.

Notorious human rights abusers, including, among others, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Zimbabwe, have long sought to shield their abuses from the eyes of the world by staging elaborate deceptions and denying access to international human rights monitors.

On 27th January 2007, President Bush, in an interview with the Times, assured the world that “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.” Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria, was surprised to learn of Bush’s statement. Three and half years ago, American officials, suspecting Arar of being a terrorist, apprehended him in NewYork and sent him back to Syria, where he endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture. When Arar described his experience in a phone interview, he invoked an Arabic expression.The pain was so unbearable, he said, that “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.”

In the Gambia, where I come from, our President, Yahya Jammeh, seized power in a military coup in July 1994. Under sustained domestic and international pressure, he was forced to adopt a two-year program for transition to civilian rule, completed in 1996.

The Military ruler, Yahya Jammeh declared himself winner of the Presidential elections in September 1996. The elections were described by the International communinity as being deeply flawed.

In spite of significant political changes in the Gambia following the coup in 1994, and the notable release of numerous long-term prisoners of conscience, some of whom had been held since Captain (now Colonel (Rtd)) Yahya Jammeh seized power in July 1994, human rights have continued to be violated with impunity.

Since the ban on political activities was selectively lifted in August 1996, dozens of members and supporters of legal opposition parties have joined the ranks of those persecuted by the authorities for their political activities and have been subjected to short-term detention. Some have been tortured.The first death sentences since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1995 were handed down in June 1997, although no judicial executions have taken place.

The long awaited return to civilian rule was completed in January 1997. The presidential election in September 1996 and legislative election in January 1997 confirmed Colonel (Rtd) Yahya Jammeh as President and his political party as dominant in the national assembly.

A new Constitution came into effect in January 1997. Organisations such as Amnesty International raised concerns in August 1996 about the threats the new Constitution would pose to human rights. In particular, these organizations raised concerns that some of the military decrees passed before the return to civilian rule still remain in force, even though the Constitution should invalidate any other law which is inconsistent with its provisions.

The following human rights problems have been common in the Gambia since the military coup in 1994:

• security force harassment and mistreatment of detainees, prisoners, opposition members, a journalist, and in some cases, civilians

• arbitrary arrest and detention

• incommunicado detention and prolonged pre-trial detention

• denial of due process

• infringement of privacy rights

• restrictions on freedom of speech and press

• violence and discrimination against women

• female genital mutilation (FGM)

After an alleged coup attempt in The Gambia, in late March 2006, more than 70 people were unlawfully detained for longer than the 72 hours allowed by Gambian law. Among those held by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) were prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists, editors, civilians, military and security personnel, and politicians.

On 27 March 2006, suspects dressed in military uniform appeared on national television allegedly “confessing” to involvement in a coup attempt.

Some of the detainees were held incommunicado for several weeks at the NIA headquarters and the Mile 2 prison, where at least 12 were allegedly tortured or illtreated. The number of those still held at the end of 2006 was not known.

For example, Mariam Denton, a lawyer and prisoner of conscience, was detained on 6 April and unlawfully held in Mile 2 prison for over three months. Although her lawyers’ application for access was granted by the High Court on 25 April, the prison authorities denied access until after 10 May. She was released without charge on 25 July after a failed attempt by the prosecutor to have her charged with concealment of treason.

At least 12 detainees were allegedly tortured. Some reportedly had their heads covered with plastic bags or were held under water for long periods. Others were reportedly burned with cigarettes or severely beaten.

Preliminary hearings began in the High Court in Banjul on 10 May for 15 defendants detained in relation to the coup attempt. Charges, including treason and concealment of treason, all of which are capital and non-bailable offences, were made public. On 28 July 2006, seven detainees, including Abdoulie Kujabi, a former Director General of the NIA, had been charged with conspiracy to commit treason. Their trial had not started by the end of 2006.

On 18 July, several defence lawyers withdrew from one case, citing concerns about the independence of the judge. Some detainees were denied access to their lawyers. At least four military defendants in the treason trial were transferred to a court martial, where their statements suggested that confessions had been obtained under duress or torture.

The authorities in The Gambia alleged that former NIA Director General Daba Marena and four soldiers – Ebou Lowe, Alieu Cessay, Alpha Bah and Malafi Corr – escaped during a prison transfer around 4 April 2006 but it has now emerged that the five men had in fact been extrajudicially executed or at least become victims of enforced disappearance. No independent investigation into the alleged escape had been initiated by the end of the year.

With regard to freedom of expression, at least nine Gambian and foreign journalists and editors were detained in 2006, and some were reportedly tortured. Harassment and threats against journalists, editors and media critical of the government intensified.

On 28 March 2006, Musa Saidykhan, editor of The Independent, and Madi Ceesay, managing director, were arrested and the newspaper’s premises were closed. The two men were held incommunicado at the NIA headquarters until 20 April, when they were released without charge and without an official reason for their detention. The newspaper remained closed at the end of the year.

On 10 April, Lamin Fatty, a reporter with The Independent, was detained at the NIA headquarters in connection with the coup attempt. He was held incommunicado for over two months. In May, he was charged with publishing false information. The Gambian government has still not brought to justice those responsible for the assassination of journalist Deyda Hydara in December 2004.

On 25 May, a US based Gambian online paper, The Freedom Newspaper, had its web-site hacked into, and a list of over 300 names of alleged “informers” of the newspaper was published in the Daily Observer, a pro-government newspaper in the Gambia. At least four journalists were subsequently arrested but were released without charge. One journalist was held incommunicado at the NIA headquarters for almost five months before being released without charge.

Speaking more generally, it has to be said that the front pages and television news have continued to report rave human rights violations, including genocide and other crimes against humanity. The question to be asked therefore is this: What has changed?

On a positive note, atleast, at the end of the twentieth century, human rights, essentially as defined in the Universal Declaration, is now a universal ideology.Under international influence, the ideology of human rights has been “constitutionalized” in almost all countries.

And virtually all countries are now committed internationally to respect and ensure the human rights of their citizens. International institutions monitor and criticize, often supported by governments with blandishments, carrots, and occasional sticks.

The human rights ideology has helped shape the world events. International human rights had an important role in bringing human rights and the seeds of democracy to the former Soviet empire and beyond. Dirty wars, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in other parts of the world ended in substantial measure through the influence of international human rights. An international tribunal in the former Yugoslavia has indicted a head of state,and there in Rwanda tribunals have convicted people of genocide and related crimes. Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is currently on trial at the Hague in Holland for crimes against humanity. A former head of state, Augusto Pinochet, as arrested for extradition to stand trial for torture and murder of many citizens during his reign in Chile [although he was not brought to trial due to poor health].

Dubbed an “African Pinochet”,Hissene Habre could become the first former dictator to face his victims in the courts of another country. His indictment provides a timely rejoinder to those who would undermine the emerging system of international justice. Ironically Belgium’s “universal jurisdiction” law,under which Habre was indicted ,was repealed two years ago after the Belgian courts were flooded with atrocity cases from around the world.

International human rights bodies, notably the European human rights system and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights have addressed and remedied violations by powerful members states.The domain of international and regional human rights bodies continues to expand.

Undeniably, there have been terrible human rights failures in The Gambia,Bosnia,Rwanda and elsewhere,national constitutions and international norms failed to deter ,international institutions and powerful governments failed to respond promptly and adequately.

However, International tribunals are sitting to bring gross violators to trial,a permanent international criminal tribunal to adjudicate crimes of genocide ,war,crimes against humanity is being created. Various governments have moved to support international human rights and made their bilateral and multilateral influence an established force in international relations.

Every human being in every country now has claim to the freedoms,protections and benefits of the human rights ideology. Each has a claim to those rights against his or her society. Every human being’s rights now have claim on international responsibility and protection. No country can now say that the human rights of any human being subject to its jurisdiction is no else’s business. The world and its institutions may or may not respond ,but responsibility persist.

Many hundreds of millions- even billions of human beings who enjoyed no human rights half a century ago now live under human rights regimes.

Increasing numbers of countries provide constitutional protection for individual rights, increasing numbers of countries have accepted international monitoring and scrunity. But much depends – will depend on vigilance,by national bodies,by governments that care, by international institutions,by nongovernmental organizations and by the press.

Finally, I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 (Archive on Saturday, June 30, 2007)
Posted by PNMBAI  Contributed by PNMBAI
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