Former Gambian judge calls for full human rights for gays
by Trevor Grundy
Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA)
Three years ago, President Yahya Jammeh promised stricter laws than even Iran on homosexuality.
On the eve of a 2008 conference on human rights Jammeh gave same sex people just 24 hours to leave The Gambia. He promised “stricter laws than Iran” and stunned organizations like Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders by saying he would cut off the head of any gay person found in his country.
“Jammeh,” said human rights activist and gay rights campaigner, Australia–born Peter Tatchell, ”has a long history of homophobia. If he tries to carry out these threats, international aid donors are likely to withdraw their support, and foreign tourists will stay away in droves, thereby damaging the Gambian economy.”
So far, fortunately, no blade has gone near any gay neck in Africa’s smallest country.
But there is growing awareness among the country’s intellectual leadership that the country’s image is worsening – almost on a daily basis – because of Jammeh’s vile threats to gay people and his government’s draconian handling of journalists.
Jammeh took power after the 22 July 1994 army coup which saw the end the long career of Gambia’s first president, Sir Dawda K. Jawara. The coup ushered in rule by a strange mixture of soldier/civilians who often give the outside world the distinct impression that they spend most of the day thinking up fresh ways of giving their country a bad image.
During a recent visit trip to the Gambia, with members of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Journalists Association, I met a man who dares risk official condemnation for his enlightened views on how gay men and lesbians should be treated. Not just in Gambia or Africa but everywhere in the world where the rule of law is based on full rights for all is both respected and implemented.
“I think everyone has the right to determine his/her own orientation whether it is religion, sexual or ideological,” the former High Court judge and leading Gambian lawyer Almamy Fanding Taal told me at the end of a two day conference on Media and Economic Development in a Globalising World in the Gambia.
He said it is time for the Gambian Government to re-examine all laws pertaining to homosexuality and throw out all forms of discrimination when it comes to sexuality.
“It is time that Gambia revises all its laws on homosexuality. As far as full human rights for everyone are concerned, we have no time to waste. I think the time is always now. Every human right that has been given, or guaranteed, by my government should be respected. The President has expressed strong opposition to homosexuality because that’s what the law tells him to do.”
I made it clear to this outspoken and very courageous man that we were talking ‘on the record.’
He said that The Gambia which attained independence in 1965 and which became a republic inside the Commonwealth in 1970, inherited its laws against homosexuality from the British.
“The British” he told me after speaking at the conference on the media and Gambia’s communication policies, ”were not at all liberal. But we must cast out minds back to that time and realize the purpose of the laws they imposed. The British were in control of us and so their laws served their purpose. They would never have passed the same laws in Britain because the British are a free people. When we became independent and free – that was the time to examine old laws and bring about a transformation.”.”
Justice Taal is one of the Gambia’s best respected lawyers.
He was made a high court judge on 28 September 2009.
In October 2009 The Point newspaper reported that he had been removed from his position without any official explanation.
“You journalists like sensational things,” Taal told the paper’s correspondent. “I was not sacked but removed.”
He refused to say any more than that and so the real reason for his apparent dismissal is not in the public arena.
Prior to his appointment as a judge he was a private legal practitioner and chairperson of the National Youth Council.
Taal had also worked at the Attorney General’s Chambers and the Gambia Divestiture Agency for seven years before going into private practice.
He told me that the Gambian government has an on-going responsibility to respect all its obligations when it comes to human rights.
“I think it is time for the government to start looking at those obligations and respecting them,” he said adding that the Foreign Minister, Dr Momodou Tangara, has a responsibility to inform the government what those obligations are and to speak out if they are not being fulfilled by agencies of the state like the police or the security agencies.”
Justice Taal said that if those human rights obligations were neglected then “Gambia’s international reputation would always be in question.”
He said that it is essential that the Gambia participates fully in Commonwealth meetings.
“The Commonwealth’s reputation and influence is without peer. I think the conference we are having in the Gambia is encouraging dialogue, opening up the spaces where people can express their views about development, especially economic development.”
On his country’s image overseas, he said-
”The profile of Gambia depends on where you’re standing.
“To some in tourism, Gambia has been on the map for a long time. I
“t’s so important that Gambia participates in more and more Commonwealth meetings and links up with organizations like the Commonwealth Journalists Association and the Judges and Magistrates Association. I think our participation has been steadily increasing in such forums but given the size of my country, it’s easy to miss Gambia because we seem to be inside Senegal.”
(Trevor Grundy is a British journalist and author who has worked in central, eastern and southern Africa. He was part of a Commonwealth Journalists Association training team that visited the Gambia between 30 July and 6 August this year)
Former Gambian High Court judge Almamy Fanding Taal
(Picture by:Trevor Grundy)