By Saikou Jammeh
The ‘disappeared’ Gambian Islamic scholar, who had been wildly speculated to have died, has finally appeared, alive and ticking. But, after all, the astute cleric had neither been on a vigil. In fact, the past five months that he’d been away, whether he was regularly saying his prayers, is a question that is subjected to his confirmation.
For, Imam Baba Leigh was being kept against his will, arbitrarily, in a secretly-shrouded place where not even his wife could have access to him. The Gambian state authorities, who had all along been telling the public, unfaithfully, that the imam was not in their custody, is the culprit here.
The prolonged detention wasn’t just a violation of the rights of the scholar, but it breaches Gambian constitution, which prohibits detention of suspects, even of a common criminality, beyond 72 hours. Yet more shocking is the government’s failure to give any genuine justification, legal or moral.
No wonder when Baba Leigh, visibly weak and frail, was paraded on the state-TV on Friday 10 May, following his release, he was a mere shadow of his former assuming self.
The outspoken cleric is no stranger to arbitrary arrest and detention, which in today’s Gambia, has become a norm rather than an exception. It seems however, that the near a half year of detention, without access to even a lawyer, is the stroke that perhaps not broke, but painfully lacerated the proverbial camel’s back.
Uncharacteristic of him, Imam Leigh was economical of the truth of the circumstances that surrounded his saga. He ironically praised the state that put him under the trauma of detention, apparently in jails whose conditions had been generally described as inhumane and degrading.
He even heaped blame on himself, and admittedly allowed to be left holding the bag of guilt, for a ‘crime’ which the state authorities were unable to muster courage to spill out, even after wallowing in Dutch courage that was the apparent stage-managed episode.
“I am a human being and mistakes cannot be avoided, but the best human being is one, who makes mistakes, knows it and tries to rectify the mistake,” Baba Leigh was quoted as saying. The imam however, left the “mistake” unsaid. So did the Presidential Affairs Minister, Njogu Bah, who as the cliché goes, roamed the bush before making his point, when he said:
“When you comment on issues that you don’t have clear facts on, whatever happens to you, you are the cause of it…In the event that we cannot stay away from commenting, let us say things that will add to the peace and stability in the country, but not to comment on issues that can destabilise a country.”
Imam Baba Leigh leads the Mosque of Kanifing Estate, a middle class settlement in urban Gambia. He has a large following, and he has won awards, both at home and abroad, for his exemplary scholarship, and stance against human rights violations. He taught many a renowned scholar in today’s Gambia – the Imam of the State House Mosque, Abdoulie Fatty, is one of them. Aside from religion, he is interested in contemporary issues.
His arrest, on December 3, 2012, sent shock waves across the country and beyond. At the time, and until today, no known crime can be attributed to him. Many linked his arrest to his condemnation of the government’s controversial execution of nine prisoners, which he, contrary to the position of Islamic Council, claimed as un-Islamic.
Imam Leigh’s fate had been a subject of global concern. The mysterious circumstance which shrouded his whereabouts fed into the rumour mill as well as reports that Imam Leigh was no more; that he’d succumbed to alleged torture.
But, according to news aired over the state media, Imam Baba’s release came following a presidential pardon. Analysts however, see such a pronouncement as face-saving, as they cast a doubt on the constitutionality of a presidential pardon on one who is not convicted for a crime, as in the case of Baba Leigh.
“As far as the supreme law of the Gambia is concerned, a pardon generally comes after a conviction,” writes Lamin Darboe, a U.K-based Gambian lawyer.
“On the evidence, Imam Leigh was abducted and disappeared for over five months. He was never charged with any offence, and no prosecutions were commenced against him, and there was no concluded judicial proceeding resulting in a conviction. In the circumstances, there could not be a presidential pardon.”
Imam Leigh’s release followed certain developments. For instance, the sustained campaign for his release had recently been heightened. A few days before, when the U.K and the U.S governments, respectively, released their annual human rights reports, The Gambia Government came under renewed calls, even diplomatic threats to free Imam Leigh.
Such a publicly-displayed tough stance by the hands that largely contribute to feed the country might have been hardened behind the walls of diplomatic bunkers. Therefore, besides President Jammeh’s “goodwill”, whether such efforts contributed to Baba Leigh’s release or that The Gambia Government was out to debunk and “shame” newspapers which reported that Baba Leigh was dead; or even none of the above – highly unlikely though – is a question in the air.
For now, the speculation is tamed. Imam Baba Leigh is alive but whether he came out healthy remains to be seen. Part of the good news is that his traumatised family, especially the wife who naturally broke into tears at every news media interview, will once again feel around them the Imam’s warmth and genteel aura – something they’d been unjustly, unlawfully denied for far too long.
Saikou Jammeh is a Gambian journalist
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. It does not reflect Front Page International (FPI)’s editorial policy.