- The first Gambian youths have been sentenced for playing football during the rainy season, which earlier this year was banned by an edict from President Yaya Jammeh. The youths will have to pay a fine of dalasi 2,500 (euro 86) or face three months imprisonment.
President Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 military coup, made the controversial edict banning football (soccer) in February. According to Mr Jammeh, football playing youths should rather help out in the fields during the main agricultural season, from June to October. The rainy season is also when the so-called 'Nawetane tournament' traditionally is held in the Gambian countryside.
A group of youths in Gunjur village that was caught playing football was brought to a district tribunal, which found them guilty of disrespecting the presidential decree and sentenced them to a heavy fine, by rural Gambian means.
The Gambian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders yesterday strongly protested the verdict and the presidential order, saying this equalled an imposition of forced labour. The group held nobody could force people to take up farming against their will and that the decree therefore was a "flagrant violation" of the country's constitution and contravened international human rights standards.
The Gambian human rights group reminded the President and his government that The Gambia must be governed by the rule of law through the democratic process and that any circumstance to circumvent this process will only lead to the conclusion that the country is effectively under a dictatorship.
- We believe that there is no basis in law for such pronouncements or indeed any that may encourage the violation of human rights no matter what the ultimate goal may be, the group's statement said.
President Jammeh had issued the decree as to improve agricultural output in the country. In The Gambia, the majority of population is engaged in subsistence agriculture with few modern applications. Due to rising prises, even the use of fertilizer has faded out during the last decade, thus further decreasing outputs.
While spending little on agricultural modernisation, Mr Jammeh however had found that the 'Nawetane tournament' was a significant reason for the decreasing agricultural output. In the tournament - which is the most popular football event in The Gambia - each and every village and community enters a team.
According to the President, the tournament however distracts Gambian youth from helping out on the fields in the most labour intensive agricultural season. "The time wasted organising football matches could be better spent in the fields," Mr Jammeh said when presenting the decree. Therefore; an edict to ban football altogether from June to October.
The ban comes in line with an increased use of presidential decrees in The Gambia. A typical presidential decree also contains a fixing of the sentence for those daring to violate the President's orders. "You have been warned," President Jammeh told Gambians when he presented his anti-football decree. "You know that Janjangbureh Prison is not far. Those who disobey my orders will be sent to jail," he added.
During the nine years of Mr Jammeh's rule in The Gambia, the human rights situation has gradually deteriorated. The independent press has been largely silenced and Mr Jammeh is said to have won the October 2001 elections through large-scale fraud. The judiciary in slowly being undermined and human rights violators are said to be operating with impunity.
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