He looked at me in the eyes, and I immediately saw in his many years of despair and agony. He has a story to tell. As I sat in front of him and shook his cold hardened hand, I felt a sudden chill. He has a straight face – a little pale and his voice was just so commanding.
May be, just maybe it is unusual to sit in front of a man who has been jailed in one of the world’s deadliest prisons – Mile II, in the outskirts of The Gambian capital Banjul – for 24 years.
Lamin Fatty was a police investigator who was incarcerated with a colleague for murder in 1992 after a suspect died in custody. He now lives in Senegal, after Gambian authorities threatened to revoke his amnesty. He was part of the more than 200 inmates pardoned by the country’s eccentric ruler, Yahya Jammeh this summer.
In August 2012, Jammeh caused an international cry after executing nine inmates from the prison where Lamin was serving his life sentence.
He painfully swallowed his saliva, as if he was choking on it and somberly saying to me: “I saw five of the prisoners killed in 2012 – Lamin Darboe, Alieu Bah, Dawda Bojang and Lamin Jarju.”
He was only trying to hold back his tears. His eyes were bloodshot red and his voice trembling.
“I saw so many atrocities in Mile II, people being tortured and killed,” Lamin Fatty
It was after the early morning Fajr prayers and many in The Gambia were looking forward to a new day; but not those on death row in Mile II. Everyone there was wondering who among them would constitute the first batch of those to be executed.
A group of men came through the prison, pulled away some inmates, some of whom did not face the firing squad but were “wrestled and strangled to death.”
“Some had their face covered,” he said. The biggest shock of it all was him seeing a woman – a Senegalese citizen Tabara Samba being carried away with her face covered. “I saw them. I saw them putting a mask on her face in my presence. I saw them.”
Lamin is now in his mid-fifties. He helped around in the prison and did janitorial work. He cleaned small ponds of blood and stains left from torture sessions and sometimes from killings.
“I used to clean the blood of people killed in the prison. I witness so many dirty things and it is disturbing,” Lamin Fatty
For him, the remembrances are worse than the deadliest nightmares.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture issued a report in March 2015 citing the prevalence of torture in the country and expressing concerns over prison conditions. He noted that “the nature of the torture is brutal and includes very severe beatings with hard objects or electrical wires; electrocution, asphyxiation by placing a plastic bag over the head and filling it with water and burning with hot liquid”.
In November 2014, the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Extra-Judicial Executions were refused access to the Security Wing of Mile 2 prison, where death row prisoners and others like Lamin Fatty sentenced to long prison terms are held.
“Prison conditions were poor and cells were overcrowded, damp, and poorly ventilated. Inmates complained of poor sanitation and food and occasionally slept on the floor. Officials allowed detainees to receive food from outside prior to conviction, but not afterward,” said the US State Department.
Medical facilities in prisons were poor, and authorities sent sick inmates to the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital in Banjul or nearby health centers for examination and treatment. Former inmates and human rights organizations reported that prisoner mortality rate was high. Reports indicated prisoners died of neglect or lack of access to health care.
“We were fed with long-dead animal meat and expired food. Many people died because of the kind of food we ate. Some inmates due to congestions in the prisons will sleep in the toilets or even on the bare floor,” said Fatty.
A year after the wrongful execution of inmates, President Jammeh said he was “shocked” there were numerous cases of prisoners “languishing” in the remand wing of Mile 2 Prison. He confirmed some of the prisoners had been there for years with “only one court appearance.” The president urged the judiciary to do more to speed along cases to ensure respect for each prisoner’s right to trial.
Complaining to prison officers or warden brought no result. They were told by officers that they had “no rights” at Mile II.
But there are programs in prison to help rehabilitate prisoners including access to a library.
Whiles in prison, Lamin learned to become a librarian through the Prison Fellowship Program and has authored three books. He has written a history book in the local Mandinka language on Sundiata Keita, a book on Samanguru Konteh and one the Fulani warrior, Yerro Mama Gannye.
He looked at me for a quick second, looked up staring at the ceiling; took a deep breath and I knew it was like a sigh of relief – a heavy burden was lifted.
He crossed his legs at his ankles, shook them anxiously and said to me: “I wanted to stay home you know. I wanted to work and relax, be a father and be at peace.”
It sent a shivering chill through my body and my hands trembled.
His stay at home plan to be with his children would not last long. Spy agents from the country’s National Intelligence Agency, who were accused of torturing detainees whose blood he had to clean, were harassing him.
They had him re-arrested, detained and interrogated over the escape of an ex-convict, Omar Jambang, who was also pardoned.
Many of the 200 detainees released from Gambia’s notorious Mile 2 prison in Banjul are trying to get out of the country as soon as possible in order to avoid being picked up by police again.
Former information minister, Amadou Janneh said that the pardons came with strings attached—anything they do within the next 10 years can land them back in jail and that with Jammeh, it could be anything.
Well, anything could be as true as anything. Lamin nearly went back to prison because he did not attend the solidarity march in Banjul nor participated in the day long cultivation of President Jammeh’s farm in Kanilai by the pardoned prisoners to show appreciation.
“Many people were taken to jail without even being taken to trial and they had no idea why they were arrested. It would be very easy for him to come up with trumped-up charges to send some of them back to jail,” Janneh, himself a former Mile II inmate said.
Fatty fears for his life – seen and heard too much. His wife is deceased and his children missing out of school.
He was first convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, but in 1994 he appealed against his conviction and was given life imprisonment. In August 2015, he was lucky to be part of those granted presidential amnesty.
Fatty is starting life afresh in Dakar and in need of financial and moral support to keep up with current realities of life after prison.