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ECOWAS court orders Gambia to pay tortured journalist

New York, December 17, 2010--Musa Saidykhan, who was detained for three weeks in 2006 by Gambian state security agents, was tortured and must receive compensation, a West African regional court ruled on Thursday.

Saidykhan, editor-in-chief of the now-banned private biweekly The Independent, was detained for 22 days without charge by the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA) during a brutal government crackdown following a purported coup plot. He said he was tortured during his detention and brought a lawsuit at the Nigeria-based Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demanding compensation for illegal detention and torture.

Musa Saidykhan

On Thursday, a panel of four judges ruled in his favor in a lawsuit filed by the Ghana-based press freedom group Media Foundation of West Africa. The court ordered the Gambian government to pay Saidykhan damages of US$200,000. The ruling is final without possibility of appeal, the foundation's executive director, Kwame Karikari, told CPJ.

"We applaud this ruling by the ECOWAS court of justice in favor of Musa Saidykhan, who is one of many Gambian journalists who have been illegally arrested and treated like criminals for doing their job," said Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "It is imperative that the international community ensures that the Gambia complies fully with this ruling."

As a member state of ECOWAS, the Gambia is required to pay the damages. The court's mandate stipulates unspecified sanctions for failure to comply, according to CPJ research.

In the court papers, Saidykhan alleged that NIA agents administered "electric shocks on his body including his genitals" in order to extract a self-incriminating confession of involvement in the purported coup. NIA agents also allegedly threatened to bury him alive in a graveyard near the detention center.

"As a result of the physical, mental, and psychological torture inflicted on me, I am left with scars on my back, legs, arms, and a bayonet cut on my left jaw," Saidkhan stated in his affidavit.

Saidykhan fled into exile after his release and resettled in the United States. Authorities have blocked The Independent from reopening since raiding and sealing of its offices in 2006. The paper was known for its critical reporting on the government.

Thursday's decision follows a June 2008 ECOWAS ruling ordering the Gambia to release and compensate reporter "Chief" Ebrima Manneh, who has disappeared in government custody since his July 2006 arrest by NIA agents. Authorities have continually denying holding Manneh despite several sightings and have done nothing to abide by the court decision.

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