By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reporting from The Gambia
BANJUL, THE GAMBIA (BosNewsLife) — Two British missionaries spent New Year behind bars in The Gambia after being sentenced to one-year jail terms with hard labor for allegedly criticizing the government of President Yahya Jammeh, who critics say has led the tiny African nation with an iron fist.
David Fulton, 60, and his wife Fiona Fulton, 46, pleaded guilty last week to charges of “sedition”, in hope of lenient sentences, BosNewsLife learned. The Fultons were also ordered to pay a fine of about $10,000, in addition to their hard labor prison term.
Officials defended the punishments. “I found the offenses of the accused party to be very shocking and they have shown no respect for the country, the government and the president of the republic,” said Judge Edrissa Mbai. “I will send a clear message to the offenders.” He added that the couple would receive an additional six months behind bars if the fine is not paid.
Among the judge’s arguments was an apparent e-mail exchange in which David Fulton allegedly wrote: “This country is sinking fast into a morass of Islam, many people are safe and standing for Christ, but they are the minority”.
In a “heartbreaking scene” at the start of the ruling the judge ordered the couple’s two year-old adopted daughter to be removed from the court because her cries of “Mommy, Mommy” were disturbing the proceedings, witnesses said. Their daughter was reportedly being cared for by friends.
The Fultons could lodge an appeal within 20 days, but it was not immediately clear if they would do so.
Defense lawyer Antoumane Gaye told the court his clients had been working to help The Gambia, and asked that they be spared jail time. The Fultons, who lived nine years in the country after first visiting as tourists, are affiliated with Westhoughton Pentecostal Church near the town of Bolton in Greater Manchester, England.
The church said on its Web site that Fulton is a chaplain with the Gambian army and also provides worship services to communities only reachable by riverboat, while his wife cares for the terminally ill. “We are shocked and saddened by the severity of the sentence and are doing whatever we can to seek their release. Please pray concerning an appeal against this sentence,” it added.
Friends said the pair were arrested in late November in their home in Serre Kunda, a town close to the capital Banjul, and moved to separate prisons.
Rights investigators expressed outrage about the sentencing. “It is not a crime to criticize a government,” apparently in letters, explained Glenn Penner, who leads the Christian advocacy group Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC). “In the 21st century, this type of repression is ludicrous. The charges brought against the Fultons say more about the government than they do about the couple,” he told BosNewsLife in a statement.
Penner said his group is worried about the well-being of the couple as they have been sent to “the notoriously severe Mile Two Prison” in Banjul”.
Ironically, this is apparently the detention facility they visited regularly as part of their missionary work. In a recent report of human rights organization Amnesty International conditions in the Mile Two Prison were described as harsh with “overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and foul food”.
President Jammeh is known for his tough treatment of critics, including also journalists, according to rights investigators. There is, “absolute intolerance of any form of criticism” in The Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests the daily lot of journalists “who do not sing the government’s praises,” said advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
Jammeh led a military coup in 1994 that overthrew the president and banned political activity. He won three widely criticized multiparty elections since then. The president has also been known for outlandish claims and bouts of paranoia that see alleged plotters thrown in jail.
In recent years the eccentric 43-year old retired colonel claimed to have a secret cure for AIDS – his prescription is a green herbal paste and a diet of bananas. Jammeh visited the sick and dying waving his hands over their heads and chanting, rather than supplying anti-retrovirals. A United Nations official who questioned the president’s ‘cure’ was thrown out of the country.
His apparent involvement in the sentencing of missionaries comes amid international concerns over the situation of Christians and religious minorities in the mainly Muslim country of close to two million people. About three percent consider themselves to be Christians with just over half of those being Roman Catholic, according to church estimates.
“There are just over 100 church congregations throughout The Gambia, half of which are Roman Catholic and 13 Methodist or Anglican,” said Westhoughton Pentecostal Church. Others are either independent or small church congregations, mainly evangelical and charismatic, the church explained.
While most of them are based in Banjul and the towns of Serrakunda, Brikama and Bakau, several evangelical churches have reportedly also mushroomed in villages and other areas.