By Carley Petesch, AP
KANIFING, Gambia — Fatoumata Sawaneh tried to hold back tears while talking about her father, one of hundreds of people who disappeared during the 22-year reign of President Yahya Jammeh in this tiny West African country.
Imam Ousman Sawaneh was arrested in October 2015, picked up as he led volunteers clearing grass in the local cemetery. His detention, for unknown reasons, bewildered his family.
“We don’t have access to see him,” she says, breaking down into sobs. “We are hoping that we will see him soon.”
Now, after the president’s stunning defeat in last week’s election, Fatoumata and others are hoping those who vanished can come home.
Jammeh has long been accused by human rights workers of heading a government that tortures opponents and silences dissent. Hundreds of Gambians have been arbitrarily detained for years, often without access to family members or lawyers.
On Monday, an appeals court ordered the release on bail of top opposition figures who were arrested in April for staging peaceful protests. The next day, a court released on bail a dozen opposition supporters whose trial was ongoing for unlawful assembly. A lawyer said the decisions signal a “wind of change.”
But for every such high-profile case in Gambia, countless other people remain incommunicado, often for unknown reasons.
“There are many cases, many family members who still don’t know where their loved ones are,” said Sabrina Mahtani, West Africa researcher for Amnesty International. “Gambia is a state that was run on fear, to keep people afraid, to keep people compliant.”
There is no real reason why one person would get picked up instead of another, contributing to that culture of fear, Mahtani said. “So it meant that people didn’t speak out openly, people didn’t share things on social media, people are always watching their back.”
The arrest of Sawaneh came not long after he and other imams presented a petition to Jammeh urging the release of some rice farmers who had been arrested, according to Amnesty International. A court ordered that Sawaneh be produced in March 2016, but the order has not been obeyed.
Mahtani said this is common and that the new government has an obligation to look into the cases of people who have disappeared, to open the doors to prisons and to start a truth and reconciliation process.
Jammeh’s election loss saw Gambians for the first time in decades ripping down posters of their leader and shouting “Freedom!” in the streets, while soldiers and police stood by, some even cheering.