Gambian independence fete overshadowed by abuse reports

Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - The Gambia marked its 50th year of independence on Wednesday, with festivities overshadowed by growing complaints over its rights record and the regime increasingly seen abroad as a pariah.

President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist since seizing power in 1994, launched three months of celebrations with a parade at the national Independence Stadium.

"Colonialism was an exploitative system interested in the monopoly of raw materials and markets were established through violence and usurping of political power," he said in a televised speech at the stadium.

He paid tribute to the leaders of Africa's 1960s independence movements, name-checking several Gambians including Dawda Jawara, the country's first leader whom Jammeh ousted and sent into exile.

Preparations for the anniversary have been clouded by growing accusations from political opponents and international rights groups of enforced disappearances, torture and the muzzling of journalists.

The milestone comes six weeks after the presidential guard put down a bid to seize power blamed mainly on ex-servicemen from Gambian and US armed forces while Jammeh was in Dubai.

There has since been a wave of arrests, detentions and harassment targeting family members of those suspected of involvement, relatives and right groups have said.

Gambian law enforcement bodies including the feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA) have arrested at least 30 people since the beginning of January, according to Amnesty International.

- Daily rights violations -

Amnesty published a report three months ago stating that Jammeh's opponents were being subjected to daily rights violations and detailing a crackdown by authorities on the media.

"The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are seriously curtailed as the government keeps a tight control of the media and journalists and human rights defenders continue to be arbitrarily arrested, detained and subject to enforced disappearance," it said.

Lawmakers recently passed several pieces of legislation criticised around the world for the restrictions they placed on freedom of speech.

These include an amendment to the criminal code which places harsher punishments on acts of public disorder, such as "singing abusive songs" and cross-dressing.

Opponents say Jammeh has become increasingly paranoid, regularly sacking ministers and keeping only a tiny circle of trusted allies close to him.

The eccentric former wrestler, known for going everywhere in his trademark billowing white robes and never letting go of his prayer beads, has woven an aura of mysticism around himself, claiming to have a herbal cure for AIDS and performing "exorcisms" on state television.

After the failed coup attempt, the president reshuffled his government twice in less than two weeks, with high-profile culls at the justice, foreign affairs, information and transport ministries.

Jammeh has also faced criticism for his restrictions on gay rights, which he has attacked numerous times in public -- including at the United Nations General Assembly in 2013.

- 'Brutal rule' -

He enacted a law in October creating the crime of "aggravated homosexuality" which carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Naturally, Jammeh's outlandish behaviour and penchant for self-promotion delights satirists," Graeme Reid, the director of HRW's gay rights programme, said in a recent commentary on the group's website.

"But while Jammeh may be a figure of fun from afar, at home his brutal rule is no laughing matter. Few dare speak out against him, as he rules a country with one of the worst human rights records in Africa."

The Gambia, a tourism hotspot of 1.8 million people with an estimated 50,000 annual visitors from Britain alone, is planning numerous events to mark its Golden Jubilee as an independent state.

Festivities began with a parade at the national Independence Stadium in the western town of Bakau and were due to be followed later by state banquets for high-ranking officials and foreign dignitaries.

Several African leaders, including the presidents of Ghana, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau, travelled to Banjul for the anniversary.

But Western dignitaries stayed away from a country which in the last 18 months has withdrawn from the Commonwealth, severed ties with Taiwan and drawn vociferous criticism from the US over human rights.

Opposition leader Ousainou Darboe said human rights had been eroded since Jammeh rose to power.

"There were difficulties and there are still difficulties but we have kept our heads above water. We have not sunk and we will not sink," he told AFP.