Two months ago an American mother of two was plucked off the street while hailing a taxi to return home after visiting the bank. She was beaten and subsequently thrown into prison.
Under normal circumstances, there would be fierce public outrage and protests demanding her release. But Fanta Jawara was arrested in Gambia, a small West African nation, whose President, Yahya Jammeh, has been in power for over twenty years and where these types of detentions are routine.
Fanta traveled to Gambia in early April to visit her extended family for the first time in eleven years to attend an annual prayer service in her village. Yet on April 16 - just two days before she was scheduled to return to her teenage daughters and husband in Frederick, Maryland - Fanta was on the street when a protest erupted over the death of a young opposition leader who died mysteriously after being arrested two days prior. Gambian police fired tear gas at the crowd and arrested the protest leaders, participants, and innocent bystanders, including Fanta. While many of the innocent onlookers were released, Fanta was sent to the notorious Mile Two prison, which was targeted in a recent United Nations report and where freed prisoners report sleeping on hard, concrete floors and being fed cornmeal mixed with dirt.
Since her detention, Fanta has been charged with seven crimes, including rioting, inciting violence, and conspiracy to commit a felony; the original judge in her case has been replaced after accidentally coming clean in an interview that the arrests and trial might be politically motivated. Fanta’s defense lawyers have walked out on the court’s farcical proceedings, calling them illegal.
Gambia was once one the oldest and most successful democracies in Africa. From its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, free and fair elections had determined the country’s leaders. But everything changed when President Jammeh took power in a military coup in 1994. As head of Gambia, President Jammeh has committed gross human rights violations against minorities, the LGBTQI community, and civil society; persecuted and imprisoned opposition; limited the freedom of speech – both by controlling the press and restricting press access; and declared the country an “Islamic state.” And at 51 years-old, he has a long life and – if the past is any indication – presidency ahead of him.
The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which I founded five years ago to address challenges like Fanta’s, is working to secure Fanta’s release. And we are calling on Members of Congress, international organizations and the public to join our campaign to #FreeFanta.
The U.S. Government also has a role to play in pressuring President Jammeh to release Fanta and the many other prisoners languishing in Gambian prisons for exercising universal rights or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, the U.S. has already taken initial steps, including making the country ineligible for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade preference program for imports from sub-Saharan Africa. Yet more must be done in the face of the government’s ongoing crackdown, including imposing travel restrictions on individuals implicated in grave human rights abuses and freezing the U.S. assets of President Jammeh, his immediate family, and members of his inner circle. Jammeh’s $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Maryland would certainly be one place to start.
There is a certain irony that while President Jammeh is free to come and go from his Maryland home, Fanta cannot. Her daughters, Sarah and Aminata wonder whether their mom will be back to participate in end of the year award ceremonies honoring their academic accomplishments. Fanta Jawara is an American, a mother and now, a prisoner. She needs all of our help so that she can return to her family.
Bill Richardson is a former Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Energy Secretary, and Governor for the State of New Mexico. He founded the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in 2011 to promote global peace and dialogue by identifying and working on areas of opportunity for engagement and citizen diplomacy with countries and communities not usually open to more formal diplomatic channels.