Petition seeks a ‘soft law’ ruling in Manneh disappearance

Eyewitnesses saw him being led away. “We were in our Banjul newsroom on July 7, 2006, working on the next issue of the Daily Observer, when two plainclothes officers with the Gambian National Intelligence Agency approached Chief,” wrote Observer editor and correspondent Ousman Darboe. “I knew one of the officers as a Corporal Sey. They told Chief, a subeditor and reporter at the paper, that he was needed at the Bakau police station for questioning. He went along voluntarily, leaving his bag behind and saying he was confident he would be back soon.”

But Ebrima Manneh, known to his friends and colleagues as “Chief,” remains missing nearly three years later.

Eyewitnesses have since spotted the journalist in government custody. Manneh received treatment for high blood pressure in July 2007 at Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital, according to the U.S.-based Gambian news Web site Senegambianews. This week, Agence France-Presse quoted an unnamed senior police source as saying authorities removed Manneh from Mile Two Prison at an unspecified time last year.

The same police source speculated to AFP that Manneh may no longer be alive. But nobody–apart perhaps from government authorities– knows for sure. Sen. Richard Durbin last year said on the Senate floor: “I say to President [Yahya] Jammeh: Release this reporter. Let him return to his family.” One month before, the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States in Nigeria declared Manneh’s arrest and apparent ongoing detention illegal and ordered Gambian officials to release him. But the Jammeh government still refuses to confirm Manneh’s status, health, or whereabouts.

He was abducted shortly after he tried to publish in the Observer a BBC report critical of President Yahya Jammeh. But after being led away by police, Manneh was never publicly charged with a crime.

The evidence of Manneh’s seizure and subsequent disappearance form the basis of a petition filed by the group Freedom Now. The group’s honorary co-chairmen are writer and former Czech Republic President Václav Havel and South African Archbishop Desmund M. Tutu; the organization is run by human rights experts at U.S.-based law firms including Hogan & Hartson in Washington. Freedom Now filed the petition for Manneh with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. CPJ has filed case evidence with the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

The U.N. body issues periodic rulings according to international laws, covenants, and norms including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The rulings issued by the U.N. body have no enforcement mechanism on their own.

But the “non-binding, soft law rules” issued by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions have increasing consequences, write scholars Margaret K. Winterkorn-Meikle and Freedom Now Chairman Jared M. Genser. “They establish standards of conduct, which others can then enforce through political and public relations advocacy to increase government accountability.”

Take Vietnam’s democracy and press freedom activist Nguyen Dan Que. Vietnam jailed him for the third time in March 2003 over his writings. Freedom Now filed a petition on his behalf with the U.N. Working Group in June 2004. By then groups including the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and the Committee to Protect Journalists were pressing for Que’s release. The U.N. Working Group ruled in favor of Que in September 2004. Twelve U.S. Senators and 42 members of congress then sent letters asking Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong to free Dr. Que, which Vietnam did in February 2005.

Freedom Now filed the petition on behalf of Manneh with the U.N. Working Group on November 4, 2008. Freedom Now lawyers expect a ruling this year.