Her family says she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Fanta Jawara of Frederick, Md., has now spent almost three months in a prison notorious for torture, and in a cell her family says is infested with snakes.
The prison, called Mile 2, is an overcrowded complex sandwiched between a swamp and a main road leading to Banjul, the capital of Jawara’s native country, Gambia. She had returned to the tiny West African nation — the smallest on the continent — for a family reunion. On April 16, two days before she was to catch a flight home, Jawara was in the vicinity of a protest against Gambia’s eccentric dictator, Yahya Jammeh. She was caught up in a sweep of arrests.
“The PIU [police intervention unit] officers started dragging me and slapping me, they were beating me from the time I was arrested up to the time we arrived at the PIU Camp,” she wrote in a sworn statement in front of a judge. “… As soon as we arrived at the PIU Camp, they pushed me off the truck with so much force, that I landed on my feet that is why I cannot walk properly.”
Jammeh has ruled Gambia since a bloodless coup he led in 1994, at age 29, which deposed President Dawda Jawara. That Dawda and Fanta have the same last name is no coincidence — Fanta is married to the former president’s grandson, Ebrima, who is now a mechanic at Ourisman Honda in Bethesda, Md. The Jawaras have two daughters, ages 12 and 17, and are naturalized U.S. citizens.
People on Fanta’s side of the family are part of Gambia’s main opposition party, which organized the protest on April 16. Those connections have led to speculation that the arrest was politically motivated. She has been charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, inciting violence, riotously interfering with traffic, holding a procession without a license, disobeying an order to disperse from an unlawful procession and conspiracy to commit a felony.
WUSA9 in Washington reported that the U.S. State Department said Jawara had participated in the protest. State Department officials have met with Jawara at least five times since her arrest and are monitoring the situation.
Yahya Jammeh (pronounced ya-HEE-ya JA-meh) controls an intelligence service that is known for mass arrests and has been accused of extrajudicial killings. Opposition members, journalists and activists are routinely imprisoned, and reports of torture, especially at Mile 2, are common. When U.N. special rapporteurs gained access to the country for the first time in 2014, they concluded that “torture is a consistent practice” by authorities and “avoiding arrest is a necessary preoccupation” for ordinary Gambians.
Beyond the regular authoritarian proclivities, Jammeh has gained international notoriety for his unusually violent anti-LGBT ideology. Once, in a strange contradiction of terms, he said, “Some people go to the West and claim they are gays and that their lives are at risk in the Gambia, in order for them to be granted a stay in Europe. If I catch them, I will kill them.”
Another time, in a speech marking Gambia’s independence from Britain, Jammeh said, “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”
Jammeh also believes in witchcraft and personally claims to have come up with cures for AIDS, asthma and diabetes. Perhaps hinting at a cure for death, too, he once claimed that he would rule Gambia for “a billion years.” All that might seem out of place, given that in 2015 Jammeh declared Gambia to be an Islamic republic, like Iran or Afghanistan.
The Jawaras have escaped the Jammeh regime by living in the United States since 1990. Ebrima went to Frederick Community College. The couple bought a house. Their daughters told The Washington Post last month that Fanta chaperones every school field trip and never misses “Muffins and Moms” events.
In June, the Jawaras organized a small demonstration in front of the White House to try to bring attention to Fanta’s plight. Since then, some activists have tried to get the #FreeFanta hashtag going on social media. Ebrima started a Change.org petition aimed at the American ambassador to Gambia and other U.S. government representatives. It is just over 100 signatures short of its goal of 1,500.
The calls for her release were joined recently by Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who runs a foundation committed to freeing Americans imprisoned abroad, and several U.S. senators.
Given the Jammeh regime’s track record for injustice, it will take a concerted effort to free Jawara, 45. In the past, European nations have withheld aid money in response to Jammeh’s human rights abuses, but to little effect. Some believe that Jammeh made Gambia an Islamic republic as a way to appeal to rich Arab countries for aid, rather than Western countries.
Meanwhile, prisoners who have recently been freed from Mile 2 reported that they were forced to sleep on concrete and eat cornmeal mixed with dirt during their imprisonment. In other words, the situation is dire for anyone there.
Others detained during the same opposition protests in April as Jawara have been tortured or even killed, according to Amnesty International, which has called for investigations. One detainee, Nogoi Nije, “was beaten with hose pipes and batons by men masked with black hoods while water was poured over her.” Solo Sandeng, the national organizing secretary for the main opposition party, died in custody under unknown circumstances.
In a statement on Sandeng’s death, Jammeh said, “People die in custody or during interrogations, it’s really common. This time, there is only one dead and they want investigations? No one can tell me what to do in my country.”
Gambia will hold elections in December. Jammeh will be seeking a fifth term in office.