A former executive member of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), Sarata Jabbi has told the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission how she was sent to jail with her seven-month-old baby during the former regime.
Jabbi, who was working as a journalist for The Point newspaper at the time, was arrested on 15th June, 2009 with a group of other journalists following the publication of a press release by the GPU condemning ‘disrespectful and insensitive’ remarks by then president Yahya Jammeh against assassinated journalist and publisher Deyda Hydara. They were tried on charges ranging from seditious publications and conspiracy to criminal defamation.
In her testimony via Skype Thursday, Jabbi narrated the condition of the remand wing of Mile 2 central prison where she was detained with her baby, alongside her colleagues when they were arrested.
“I felt so devastated. The atmosphere at the remand wing was so terrible because the size of the building was small for the number of people who were there,” she recalled.
She spent four hours at Mile 2 before being granted bail because of her status as a breastfeeding mother, though an initial bail application was rejected.
During the trial, Jabbi told the TRRC that going to court had a huge toll and her and kids.
“Any time we were to go to court I woke up very early in the morning and even if he [the baby] was asleep I had to wake him up. And whenever I woke up, my three year old child would always cry. She would want me to take her and I wouldn’t take her. It was a difficult moment for us. It was hard because by then my husband was not there.”
After a two-month trial, Jabbi and her colleagues were convicted on sedition and criminal defamation charges and sentenced to two years in jail. She likened the atmosphere in the court room that that of a treason or murder trial due to the interest it generated especially from people in the government. Carrying her baby, she was driven to the prison with her colleagues after the judgment.
“I went with the baby to Mile 2 and he spent two nights and three days with me,” she recalled. “It was very horrible because there was a single mattress [meant for one person] and I spent the nights with my baby on that mattress. It was just a very tiny mattress and the bed net wasn’t in a good condition. It got some holes and it was big enough for mosquitoes to come in. I didn’t sleep the nights because I was fanning my baby. I tried to breastfeed him but I was very hungry,” she told the TRRC.
At Mile 2, Jabbi was offered food but she refused to eat because of the poor quality of food and the bad condition of the prison cell.
On the third day of her imprisonment at around midday, officers from the Social Welfare went to Mile 2 to meet Jabbi to take her baby from her to an orphanage.
“I asked them why. They said the baby was not meant to be here [prisons]. I told them well, the judge already knew that because my lawyer told him that I could be given an opportunity to stay at home until I weaned my baby and I could come to serve my term but he didn’t want to listen. I told them ‘if you people know that this place is not meant for the baby I think the judge should have been made to understand that but he turned a blind eye to my lawyer’s request and decided to send me to jail with my baby’. So my baby is not going anywhere.”
The social workers insisted they were instructed to take the baby away but Jabbi stood on her ground that she would not let him go.
“We started the push and pull. I was holding the baby and the baby held my [prison] uniform. Being a baby doesn’t mean he doesn’t know who his mom was, and seeing strangers he wouldn’t easily fall in for them to go with them. We pushed and pulled and the baby was crying. The prison officers told me to leave the baby because it was time to go back to prisons. So they took him away.”
Jabbi testified that she gave up after they promised her that the baby would be brought back to Mile 2 the following morning for breastfeeding, a promise they didn’t keep.
“I was heartbroken because I felt that seeing my baby would have rested my mind. My baby’s human rights were violated and as a child for that matter.”
Her lawyer succeeded in getting the authorities to return the baby to her family. On the sixth day, prison officials authorized family members to bring the baby to her every day for breast-feeding.
Following intense pressure from international human rights and press freedom advocacy groups, Jabbi and her colleagues were granted presidential pardon after serving 27 days in prison.
She’s been living in the United Kingdom with her family.