Today is a public holiday in The Gambia, as it is Aïd-al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I decided to come into the office anyway, as I wanted to do some research for a blog post on the Canadian mining industry’s behaviour in Africa. Instead, I got some material for a post on a totally unrelated topic.
On arriving at the office, my colleague explained to me that he believed he had just caught our security guard breaking in. The police and the head of our security provider soon arrived. The head of security managed to get the guard, who had fled the scene, on the phone, and convinced him to turn himself in.
My colleagues then hopped in a car to go give statements at the police station, and I asked if I could come along. I was mostly motivated by curiosity at this point, but I was also a bit worried for the safety of the security guard. I have heard many stories about how brutally thieves can be treated in many parts of West Africa, and knew that the Gambian Police Force is sometimes criticized for not respecting accused persons’ rights. I didn’t think I would have to say anything at the station, but figured I should go just in case.
The station was how I imagined it: exuding a semblance of order, but still incredibly basic. About 12 men were held in a detention area right next to the reception desk, in full view for all. The men all looked in good health and were treated calmly by the officers, but the cells were dark and filthy. Also, inexplicably, in the corner of the station lay a huge pile of random objects (several bicycles, a moped, an old suitcase, a wheelbarrow, etc.) all covered in brown dust.
After a few minutes, the security guard was brought in. His name is Lamin, and he is no older than 25. He had been working at our office for a few weeks. I had chatted with him a few times and he looked like a nice guy. He was teary-eyed and had an unmistakable look of fear on his face.
The commanding officer immediately called Lamin behind the desk. He started threatening him, in English, and asked him why he had broken into our office. I have always had a tendency to act on impulse, and this time was no different. Remembering the Charter jurisprudence we studied in criminal law, and obviously not stopping to ask myself whether similar rules exist in The Gambia, I walked up to the officer and told him as calmly as I could (i.e. not all that calmly) that he wasn’t allowed to question Lamin until he had informed him of his right to silence and his right to legal counsel. The officer immediately got very agitated, and told my colleague and I, an experienced lawyer from Malawi, that he knew the law and didn’t need our advice. He then continued to question Lamin. This time, I talked to Lamin directly, and told him that he didn’t have to answer the officer’s questions. This infuriated the officer. He stormed towards me from behind his desk, threatening to charge me with obstruction of justice, and screaming at me to get out of the station. I obliged, and on my way out he continued to yell obscenities and threats at me.
While I waited outside, my colleagues had a heated argument with the officer for about twenty minutes. I was then invited back into the station. The officer had calmed down and was apologetic. He had stopped questioning Lamin, who was now sitting calmly with another officer behind the reception desk. He started explaining to me that he was frustrated because of an ongoing wave of break-ins by security guards; he felt that private security companies were either negligent in their hiring practices, or even complicit. He then told me that he had every intention of respecting Lamin’s rights to silence and to legal counsel. To prove this, he showed me the cautionary statement that was read out to suspects before they make a confession; it clearly outlined the two rights in question. I told him that, in my opinion, he should have read this statement out to Lamin before he started questioning him. The officer then offered a surprising response: suspects often change their stories once they are informed of their right to silence; the officers at his station thus sometimes question suspects before reading them the cautionary statement, because this allows them to call them out when they change their stories, thereby pressuring them to make full confessions…. My colleague and I tried to explain to the officer that this was probably illegal, but had little success in convincing him.
With hindsight, my reaction at the police station was probably far from ideal. I challenged the commanding officer’s authority too directly, and probably did not need to address Lamin to get him to understand that he didn’t have to answer the officer’s questions. I also probably was too aggressive in the way I accosted the officer. Had I interjected in a calmer tone, he may not have reacted as defensively, and we might have been able to have a discussion right away about the cautionary statement, and at what point it needed to be read to Lamin.
On the other hand, I do think I succeeded in putting an end to an illegal interrogation. As the cautionary statement suggests, under Gambian law, confessions are only admissible in court if the accused person has been informed of his right to silence and to legal counsel. The Gambian Constitution does contain a provision similar to s. 10 b) of the Charter: s. 19 states that an arrested person must be informed of their right to legal counsel “as soon as reasonably practicable and, in any case, within 3 hours.”