Gambia celebrates coup anniversary in 'climate of fear' By AFP | Saturday, July 23  2011 at  12:51

Yahya Jammeh is celebrating 17 years since the coup that brought him to power Photo | AFP 

Gambia feted the 17th anniversary of a coup by President Yayha Jammeh Friday as his regime faced allegations from rights bodies of muzzling journalists, killings and torture.

Jammeh seized power in Gambia on July 22, 1994 in a bloodless coup from predecessor Dawda Jawara, and the anniversary is typically feted with more pomp than independence day celebrations.

"They are spending enormous resources in celebrating an illegality," Ousainou Darboe, leader of the main opposition United Democratic Party told reporters. The government has budgeted 100,000 euros ($140,000) for the celebrations.

Rights bodies have accused the 46-year-old leader of creating a climate of fear which has terrified journalists and rights defenders into toeing the line and quashes any dissent against his regime.

"President Jammeh marks July 22 each year as 'Freedom Day' and yet Gambia is ruled with an iron fist by a government that ruthlessly quashes all forms of dissent," said Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International's deputy Africa director, in report released in neighbouring Senegal.

Banquets and parades

The country's biggest party was to include a parade by security forces, school children and voluntary organisations and later followed by a state banquet in the evening.

A joint report by the World Organisation Against Torture and International Federation for Human Rights released Friday denounced draconian media laws which make freedom of expression illegal, and "legalise" repression.

Media laws describing crimes of sedition, slander and publication of false information implemented in 2004 are so restrictive that an article, cartoon or even gesture seen as insulting to Jammeh can land any citizen in jail.

On Tuesday three journalists and opposition party members living overseas, including former Gambia Press Union leader Ndey Tapha Sosseh, were charged in absentia with treason in connection with the distribution of T-shirts bearing the logo 'End to Dictatorship in the Gambia'.

Four others were previously arrested in June and remain in custody in Gambia where treason carries the death penalty.

Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland, will hold elections on November 24 and Jammeh has said his victory is "a foregone conclusion" and only God can remove him from power.