The Gambia Government is staying mute on the subsequent detention of two religious leaders in the country, a week after they were arrested by the secret police. Mr Hatabu Hydara and Mr Muhammad Fadel Hydara were arbitrarily arrested from their residence in the Serrekunda suburb of London Corner.
The family has said they are now allowed to see them after being detained incommunicado for 5 days, and are held at the National Intelligence Agency detention center in Banjul.
“Three security agents came before Dhuhr (early afternoon) prayers and took Hatabu. They went to the mosque, where they all prayed and then they put him in a tinted vehicle, and went away,” the family said.
Later that evening around 8PM GMT local time, “between Magrib (early evening) and Isha (late evening prayers,” the officers returned and arrested Muhammad Hydara, sources confirmed.
Muhammad is the Imam at the Jangjang Road Mosque in Serrekunda and his brother, Hatabu Hydara is the director of an Islaminc non-profit. The organization said their Ramadan gift distribution of food items and clothing to the needy is now on hold.
Gambian authorities have not said why the two are arrested, but unsubstantiated reports stemming from Banjul say an unknown item was found in the car of one of the brothers – Hatabou Hydara, which authorities say is a threat to national security.
“These brothers are law abiding and very sincere human beings, and since we all know the type of government we have in Gambia, there is credible fear that the State machinery might plant something in his car in other to incriminate the innocent brothers,” said Pa Modou Bojang, an exiled journalist.
The family of the brothers are pleading for their release.
The majority Sunni Muslim nation celebrate the Eid-ul-Fitr today, officially ending the holy month of Ramadan – a prayer and fasting period marked by forgiveness and charity.
But the end of the Ramadan is when the Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh ushers in what critics call a reign of terror on citizens and uses religion with the support of some religious elders, who financially benefit from his presidency to justify his “ungodly” and “unIslamic” actions.
This year, in respect of the nation’s 50th independence from British colonial rule and in honor of the holy month of Ramadan, the Gambian leader pardoned 85 prisoners, most of them youths, according to the State House. The list of pardonees wasn’t made available to the public. Prompting rights advocates whom have spent decades tracking and advocating for the release of all detainees at the NIA and state prison without trial, to term such as nothing but a “cunning ploy” “deceptive” and “political” move. The president is allowed by the consititution of the Gambia to pardon at his own prerogative.
In 2012, at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, while addressing the nation and religious leaders, The Gambian president swore to execute all death row inmates.
“All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law. All punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve. That is, those who kill are killed, and those who deserve to be put away from society are put away according to the dictates of the law,” Jammeh said.
“By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would’ve been carried out to the letter. There is no way my government would allow 99% of the population to be held to ransom by criminals…… If I do not kill them, then I will drink alcohol and eat pork,” Jammeh announced.
The following week, 9 death row inmates were summarily executed without due process causing an international outcry as Jammeh breaks a more than 3 decade moratorium on death penalty in the West African nation. A condemned prisoner whose death sentence was communted to life when Gambia abolished capital punishment in the first republic, was reinstated and executed in the second republic.
Last year, Jammeh and the Supreme Islamic Council at the end of Ramadan issued what they called a FATWA sanctioning all Gambians to pray the Eid-ul-Fitr on a day permitted by him (Jammeh).
“I own this country,” said Jammeh. “If anyone wants to pray other than this day I said, you better go to the country where you are waiting for a religious elder to tell you what day to pray. I will not allow anyone to divide Islam in this country… Interior Minister, if anyone prays other than tomorrow, and they are not arrested – unless you want to be in my hotel.”
The hotel referring to a decapitated prison – Mile II in the outskirts of Banjul.
Jammeh gave clear instructions to security chiefs.
The government occasionally targeted minority Muslim groups, such as the Ndigal community and Ahmadiyaa, for advocating religious practices not condoned by the Supreme Islamic Council.
In October 2014, police arrested 10 members of the Ndigal community in the Lower Saloum district, Central River Region, for observing the Eid-ul-Adha feast on a different date than the one declared by the Supreme Islamic Council. The detainees were held for 10 days and released with no formal charges.
Last year, at the end of the Ramadan, The Caliph General of Darsilameh Sangajor, Shiekh Sheriff Muhideen Hydara and the local head of village, Alkalo Buyeh Touray were arrested and charged with disobedience to lawful order. They were earlier this year acquitted and discharged by Magistrate Ebrima Cham of the Brikama Magistrate Court.
The constitution and other laws and policies generally protect religious freedom. It provides for “freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice.”
The Supreme Islamic Council, led by Momodou Lamin Touray and its vocal voice, former State House Imam, Abdoulie Fatty said Ahmadiyaas are not Muslims and must be sent out of the country accusing the sect of saying that non-Ahamdis are non-believers. The Gambia’s first black governor, Sir Farimang Singhateh was Ahmadiyaa, showing how long the Muslim sect has been in mainland Africa’s smallest country.
“This allegation is unfounded and malicious. Let them show to the Gambian public where Ahmadis made such statements. Not a single instance can be shown or quoted where Ahmadis said that non-Ahmadi Muslims are kafir. We never declare anyone to be outside the pale of Islam, because in our view no human being or organization has the right to declare an individual or a group as kafir as long as he or she declares himself or herself a Muslim,” said the Ahmadiyaa Amir, Baba F. Trawally.
The Supreme Islamic Council by backing President Jammeh’s political misbehavior and human rights violations are able to override constitutional provisions saying The Gambia, a secular country is an Islamic state.
The Supreme Islamic Council is supposed to be an independent body that advises the government on religious issues. Although not represented in the council, the Jammeh Administration provides the body with substantial funding.
The council has conferred upon Mr Jammeh the title Nasirudeen, meaning the Guide of the Faith of Islam. Jammeh used the title after an embarrassing encounter with protesters in Washington last year, only to drop it a month later.
The Gambia is known for its religious tolerance, even after government invited controversial comparative religious preacher, Zakir Naik who stirred controversy after he said “Muslims are more Christians than Christians,” during a Friday sermon at the presidential palace, causing an uproar from the Christian community.
“Religion or faith is a personal matter between a person and his or her Lord and Creator, Allah, the Almighty. And He is the only one who is going to judge and reward individuals on the Day of Judgment,” Amir Trawally said.
Different religious denominations and groups in The Gambia do meet to discuss issues such a religious freedom.
“The Interfaith Group for Dialogue and Peace, comprised of representatives from the Muslim, Christian, and Bahai communities, met regularly to discuss matters of mutual concern, such as religious freedom and the need to live together in harmony,” the US State Department said in its International Religious Freedom report of 2013.
The U.S. embassy regularly engaged with government officials and religious leaders and encouraged continued respect for religious freedom and tolerance.
Its Ambassador and, in his absence, the Charge d’Affaires hosted several iftars with religious leaders, where participants reinforced a message of religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.
(Reporting by Sam Phatey, Contribution from Sainey MK Marenah, Editing by Babou A. Jobe)