Last Updated 13 July 2017

Surrounded by Senegal, apart from a short strip of Atlantic coastline at its western end, Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa.

This country is found to be in flux, following the democratic transfer of power in December 2016/January 2017. Some of the ratings applied at present reflect the regime of former President Jammeh, but may change under President Barrow’s administration.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Although the constitution and other laws protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association, in practice the government frequently violates all these rights.

The constitution establishes qadi courts, with Muslim judges trained in the Islamic legal tradition, in specific areas that the chief justice determines. The qadi courts sit in each of the country’s seven regions and apply traditional Islamic law.
The Supreme Islamic Council is an independent body that advises the government on religious issues. Although not represented on the council, the government provides the council with substantial funding. The country’s president serves as the minister of religious affairs and maintains a formal relationship with the council.

Article 25 of the Constitution establishes a Muslim judge trained in Islamic legal tradition as chief justice.

Although the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion or belief, the government promotes and controls religion, especially the Sunni Islam of more than 90% of the population.

Government Practices

On certain occasions the government targeted Muslim minority groups like the Ndigal community for advocating religious practices not condoned by the supreme Islamic council. Police arrested around 10 members of the Ndigal community in the Lower Saloum district for observing the Eid al-Adha feast on a different date than the one declared by the Supreme Islamic Council.

On another occasion, the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education closed two private schools after school administrators refused to provide basic Islamic education classes for its Muslim students as prescribed by law.

Anti-atheist president ousted

In 2010, then-President Jammeh attacked atheists, saying that: “If you don’t believe in God, you can never be grateful to humanity and you are even below a pig.” In 2011 he told the BBC: “if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so.”

At the end of Jammeh’s 22-year regime off the back of a coup, in December 2016 he lost the presidential election, initially conceding defeat, but then disputed the results, alleging foreign interference. In January 2017, Jammeh threatened military resistance to the swearing-in of the president-elect, Adama Barrow. However, the military did not back him. After pressure from ECOWAS countries and the Senegalese military entering the country, Jammeh went into exile.

The presidency of Adama Barrow marks the country’s first peaceful transfer of power.

Education and children’s rights

The government funds religious instruction in schools, which includes both Biblical and Quranic studies. The law requires all schools (except international schools) to provide religious education that “cater [to the] pupil’s religions.” The government also provides religious studies teachers to private schools if the schools are unable to do so.

President-elect Adama Barrow pledged during campaign that he would introduce free basic education for all, as well as making further education more accessible.

Family, community and society

Qadi court system

The constitution establishes Qadi courts to administer traditional Islamic law. Their jurisdiction applies to family law (“personal status law”) for Muslims: marriage, divorce, and inheritance questions. While inter-religious marriages are not unheard of, anyone expressing atheist views might run the risk of being severely discriminated against.

2009 witch hunts

In 2009, state forces led mass hunts for those accused of witchcraft. Nearly 1,000 people were kidnapped, with many brought to secret government detention centers, beaten, and forced to drink hallucinogens, resulting in two deaths. The New York Times reported that the witch-hunting campaign had been sparked by then-President Jammeh’s belief that the recent death of his aunt was caused by witchcraft.

2012 planned mass execution

In 2012 then-President Jammeh abruptly announced that all 47 inmates on death-row would be executed within the month—after 27 years without any executions. Following international protests, the executions were halted after nine prisoners were shot, but the uproar against the executions in the Gambian media—as well as criticism from religious leaders—was harshly repressed. Two independent papers, the Daily News and The Standard, that criticized the executions were ordered by security officials to cease publication. Imam Baba Leigh, a popular Muslim leader who preaches his own sermons instead of those issued by the government, was arrested and tortured because he preached against the death penalty.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

President Yahya Jammeh ran a dictatorial regime, intolerant of media freedoms. The government used laws on “sedition” to silence and punish dissent. Independent journalists and media were subject to harassment, arrest, and violence.

Under Jammeh, the government ran the main radio station and leading newspaper as well as Gambia’s only TV station. However, there are several private radio stations and newspapers, and foreign broadcasts are available. Although Internet access is generally not restricted by the government, some websites critical of the regime, including that of the U.S.-based newspaper Gambia Echo, have been blocked.

His successor, President Adama Barrow pledged during the campaign that he would free imprisoned government critics and loosen the tight media controls. As Gambia entered what may be a new era of democracy following his inauguration in 2017, President Barrow reiterated his commitment to ending human rights abuses in the country and ordered the release of all prisoners detained without trial. As a result, a total of 171 inmates in the nation’s notorious Mile 2 Prison were set free in 2017. They had all been detained without trial during former President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule.

Status of “blasphemy”

The Gambia elevates crimes against religious adherents (Criminal Code, Article 117), criminalizing:

[anyone who] destroys, damages or defiles a place of worship or any object which is held sacred by that class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of the class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to religion, commits a misdemeanour.

A person convicted on these charges is subject to a fine and/or imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Moreover, the code criminalizes any insult to religion of any denomination and uttering words with intent to wound religious feelings, criminalizing:

[anyone] who, with deliberate intention to wounding the religious feelings of a person, utters or writes any word, or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of one year.



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