Former Gambian Prisoner's Fast Track to Success, Imprisonment and Freedom
George E. Curry | , Nnpa | 9/27/2012, 2:22 p.m.
"We were doing very well until I saw that the country was headed in a different direction and I tried to combine business with politics by criticizing the government. That's how I landed in trouble, by calling the ruler a dictator," he said.
That did not sit well with President Yahya Janneh, in whose administration the former college professor had served. Since his election in 1996, international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have complained that those who opposed the president were tortured, arrested, harassed or killed.
Professor Janneh, who shares little in common with the president except the same last name, had heard the horror stories but wasn't afraid to publicly voice his views.
"Dictators do things their own way," Janneh said, referring to the president. "They don't care much about what others think. They dominate the economy, the politics and they're repressive. My characterization of him as a dictator is underscored by human rights reports, human rights organizations - Amnesty International and so on - it's no secret."
And Janneh didn't keep his opinion a secret.
"I printed T-shirts, distributed them saying, 'Ban dictatorship now.' I wore some myself and drove around town - that's how I landed in trouble," Janneh said.
And that trouble came to a head last year.
He recounted, "I was in my office and some plainclothes police officers -it was June 6, 2011 - came in with two young guys and asked me, "Did you assign these guys to print T-shirts?' They said the T-shirts had been seen around town and were printed by them. They said, 'Did you assign them?' I said, 'Yes, I did.' They said, 'Are you behind it?' And I said, 'Yes.'"
That was all the policemen needed to hear.
"I was picked up, taken through a fake trial - I don't know if it should be called a trial - and charged with treason and sedition," Janneh recalled. "I didn't think anything would come out of distributing 100 T-shirts."
But it did.
"I was charged with treason and given a life sentence in one of the toughest prisons in the world," he said.
There was an international outcry over his arrest. Ayodele Ameen of Amnesty International said: "Dr. Janneh is a prisoner of conscience and is emblematic of the horrific human rights situation that prevails in the Gambia today."
Jesse Jackson decided to make an appeal to the president for the release of Janneh and Tamsir Jasseh, another jailed dissent who held dual U.S.-Gambia citizenship. Jasseh, a Navy veteran who fought in Desert Storm, had served 6 1/2 years of a 20-year sentence for treason. President Janneh announced that he planned to execute all 47 prisoners on death row. Last month, eight men and one woman were executed by firing squad. Jackson said he persuaded Janneh on his trip to place a moratorium on capital punishment.
If anyone who could get the two Americans freed, it would be Jackson, who had conducted similar missions to Syria, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Liberia and Cuba.