Rev. Jesse Jackson sits down with Gambian president Yahyah Jammeh on September 18, 2012. (Photo: Butch Wing, Rainbow PUSH Coalition)
In a speech on August 19th marking the end of Ramadan, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia announced his intention to execute the 47 prisoners kept on death row—almost all of them political prisoners. "By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter; there is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals," he said on national television. In the speech, Jammeh cited drug use and homosexuality as specifically “heinous” and “subversive” crimes and pointed to Syria as an example of the chaos that takes over when law and order are disregarded. On August 23rd, nine prisoners, including one woman, were killed by firing squad.
However, on the eve of a visit last week by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jammeh declared a moratorium on executions. During a five hour meeting with the president, Jackson also convinced Jammeh to release four prisoners (including two naturalized American citizens), to indefinitely extend the moratorium on capital punishment, and to allow the United Nations to investigate the suspicious disappearance of a Gambian journalist six years ago. Jackson sat down with the Nation to talk about his trip to the Gambia, human rights and poverty in America.
Ricky Kreitner: What made you decide to travel to the Gambia and seek the release of these prisoners?
Rev. Jesse Jackson: We heard three weeks ago that nine Gambians had been executed—in the history of the Gambia only one citizen had ever been executed—and that 38 more were going to be executed. There was an outcry from human rights groups around the world. I called the president of the Gambia—his prime minister responded, and I said, “Please do not kill them, allow us to come meet with you on humanitarian grounds.” And the president agreed. So we took a delegation to the Gambia last Monday and appealed to him to do two things: first, to put a moratorium on executions, which he agreed to do. Second, there were two Americans in prison, one a Desert Storm veteran who had been in jail for six and a half years, and a University of Tennessee professor who had been in jail for a year and a half, and he was in for life. He pardoned the two Americans who were in prison, and pardoned two Gambians, and declared a moratorium on the executions. That was a victory. It opens the door for releasing more from death row, and moving toward a stronger human rights stance within the Gambia.
Our embassy in the Gambia was supportive but did not have the moral authority to make demands. You can’t very well make the case that he can’t execute in the Gambia when we kill Troy Davis in Georgia, or Wanda Jean Allen in Oklahoma, or Curtis Moore in Texas. We can’t say he shouldn’t lock up innocent people when we, in fact lock up the most innocent people. In today’s paper, North Carolina had 17 innocent people dismissed from federal prison, with just a bus ticket—no underwear, no change of clothes, no nothing, just, “We locked you up, we were wrong, you’re out of here.” That kind of bizarre behavior at home undermines our moral authority around the world. In the end, right makes might in ways that might does not make right.
Rev. Jackson stands with the wife and son of Tamsir Jasseh, one of the released prisoners (Photo: Butch Wing, Rainbow PUSH Coalition)
Do you see any hope for the situation in the Gambia improving in the future?
There are some hopeful signs: they now have a health care system where all Gambians can get free medicine and free treatment. They now have eight small but growing hospitals. They now have a school system and about 50 percent literacy development for women as well as young men. There’s some oceanfront economic development.
There is some unfinished human rights business that must be addressed, but at least the door has been opened. We hope that the issues of free press and freeing journalists and all of that will also come in the wake of this. We would do well to encourage the Gambia to continue in this path, and not to keep holding out a higher and higher bar for President Jammeh to leap over. If he has released some prisoners, he’ll release even more. We must be a part of that positive thrust.
What role do you think the US can play in improving human rights around the world?
By being a human rights example, and therein lies our weakness. When we lead the world in imprisonment and executions and killing the innocent, we’re less able to make that case for other countries to act differently. When we go into Iraq on a pre-emptive strike, find out it’s the wrong target, lose lives, money and honor, and don’t even apologize, we lose strength. When we tell nations not to engage in terrorism—and we should—and we use drone warfare, and kill innocent people and call them enemy combatants, we weaken our moral authority in the world. And today’s world, made so small by science, which dwarfs distance and time—in real time people see CNN, or they Google, or they watch YouTube—this world is too small for us to have two sets of rules, one for ourselves and for our friends.
How do you assess the present US administration’s human rights record?
Taking 100,000 troops from Iraq is a step in the right direction. I thought that going into Afghanistan was unnecessary, but troops are coming out now, and that’s a step in the right direction. I think drone warfare is highly risky, because so many innocent people are being killed. But when the president fights for the protection of the Voting Rights Act, it’s a matter of human rights. When he fights for the rights of women—the Ledbetter Act—that’s a human rights issue. When he fights for healthcare for more Americans, that’s a human rights issue. When he fights for Pell grants so more students can be educated, that’s a human rights issue. To me, economic security is a human rights issue. So there is unfinished business there, but clearly we’re better off now than we would be with a Romney-Ryan set of alternatives.
Where do you see the future of the civil rights and human rights struggle going from here?
We need a renewed focus on poverty, inequality and violence. After all, the whole struggle always was for equal protection under the law. In most of these cities, we have select schools for a few, and then charter schools, and then the rest of them. Schools are without libraries, computer connection, foreign languages or math. In Chicago, for example, there’s a major storm about teachers’ rights the last few weeks. But 160 schools don’t have a library—104 of them in black and brown communities. There are 400,000 children and just 325 counselors. The whole school system is 85 percent black and brown, is supposed to have 45 percent black and brown teachers, now it’s down to 19 percent. And for grades 1-5, 65 percent of the teachers are young white teachers who have no cultural connection to the community and less than 2 percent are men. So we need a more substantial overall vision. We must invest in equalizing. All the schools should have music and art and math and foreign language—all should have libraries and pools. They don’t, and they should.
Fifty million people are in poverty. They cannot borrow money from a bank. Most of them don’t have a car and can’t buy one. Their children have second class schools, because schools are based on a real estate tax base. They are sicker longer. They die earlier. Poverty is a killer. And there are 50 million more who are near poor. Then there are those who were middle class last year who are poor today because they lost their homes. They find they can’t make ends meet, can’t afford to send their kids to college, cannot pay their bills. The base of poverty is expanding, and we would do well to put a renewed focus on poverty and inequality as a key to ending growing violence.
For more on battles for social justice, check out Voting Rights Watch's coverage of a push against photo ID laws in Minnesota