The constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief in theory, but the government promotes and tightly controls religion, especially the Sunni Islam of more than 90% of the population, and rails against atheism. To the extent that it is recognised, “blasphemy” may be encompassed under Islamic courts. Numerous other justice and human rights issues connected to government control of religion and free expression have arisen in recent years.
The general situation for freedom of expression is dire, in particular with reference to political or religious non-conformity.
The status of “blasphemy” as such may be controlled by Islamic legal tradition. Constitutionally established qadi courts have authority over family law, personal status and inheritance; while interreligious marriages are not unheard of, anyone expressing atheist views might run the risk of being severely discriminated against.
In July 2010, President Jammeh stressed that people should believe in God, saying that “If you don’t believe in God, you can never be grateful to humanity and you are even below a pig.”
In 2009, state forces led mass hunts for those accused of witchcraft. Nearly 1,000 people were kidnapped, with many brought to secret government detention centers, beaten, and forced to drink hallucinogens, resulting in two deaths. The New York Times reported that the witch-hunting campaign had been sparked by President Jammeh’s belief that the recent death of his aunt was caused by witchcraft.
In 2012 President Jammeh abruptly announced that all 47 inmates on death-row would be executed within the month—after 27 years without any executions. Following international protests, the executions were halted, only after nine prisoners were shot. The uproar against the executions in the Gambian media—as well as criticism from religious leaders—was harshly repressed. Two independent papers, the Daily News and The Standard, that criticized the executions were ordered by security officials to cease publication. Imam Baba Leigh, a popular Muslim leader who preaches his own sermons instead of those issued by the government, was arrested and tortured because he preached against the death penalty.