U.N report details Gambia rights abuse as EU considers aid

DAKAR (Reuters) - A report by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture has found evidence of significant human rights violations in Gambia, placing pressure on European governments as they consider whether to press ahead with a major aid package. The European Union blocked some 13 million euros ($13.69 million) in aid to Gambia last year because of its poor human rights record, in particular new legislation that could jail homosexuals for life. The EU is now considering whether to disburse 150 million euros of aid this year to the small West African country. The recent report by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez cited a high risk of torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances and criticized the lack of accountability of law enforcement and security forces. “The special rapporteur observed a layer of fear that was visible on the faces and in the voices of many he met from civil society,” said the report, dated March 2. During a visit in November, Mendez was denied access to the security wing of Mile 2 Central Prison, where death row prisoners are held in solitary confinement, the report said. As of March 2014, at least 43 people were on death row, routinely denied visits by lawyers and family, it said. "The restrictions imposed on the special rapporteur by the government during the course of this visit are unprecedented since the establishment of the mandate 30 years ago," the report said. It alleged serious violations of international standards in the prison system, including overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, insufficient access to medical care and poor sanitation. “These sub-standard conditions constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,” it stated. A government spokesman was not available for comment. The report cited testimony of detention without trial for months and the frequent practice of torture by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which reports directly to President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power for two decades. Gambia's tourism-reliant economy has been hard hit by the worst outbreak of Ebola on record, which has struck nearby West African countries. The number of tourists slumped by more than half last year, according to U.N. figures. Despite the economic downturn, the report said that Jammeh's government had not shown any willingness to engage on human rights issues in return for foreign financing. The special rapporteur received unconfirmed reports that after a failed coup attempt on Dec 30, at least 52 individuals, including the families of the plotters, were detained by the NIA, stirring fears of a further rights crackdown. Jeffrey Smith, an Africa specialist at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center, said it had also documented a rise in incommunicado detentions since the attempted coup. “The situation has deteriorated even further in the aftermath of December 30,” Smith told Reuters by email. ($1 = 0.9494 euros) (Reporting by Finbar Piper; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Larry King)