Gambia asks UN to probe journalists' disappearance

NEW YORK Thu Feb 9, 2012 12:39pm EST

NEW YORK Feb 9 (Reuters) - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has asked the United Nations to investigate the disappearance of several journalists in the tiny West African country that rights groups accuse of persecuting media workers, the U.N. rights chief said.

"In response to civil society complaints about the disappearance of a journalist in the Gambia, the president of Gambia asked for the U.N. to come in and investigate," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at a conference on Wednesday at Hunter College in New York City.

Pillay's spokesman Rupert Colville confirmed that Jammeh's request referred specifically to Chief Ebrima Manneh, who disappeared in 2006 after being picked up at the offices of his newspaper by men who said they were state intelligence officers, and to one other reporter.

Colville did not respond immediately to a request on Thursday for details about the identity of the second reporter.

It was not immediately clear what a U.N. investigation would entail and why Jammeh, who has long ignored international appeals to secure Manneh's release, was turning to the world body to deal with a matter that would normally be handled by national authorities.

In November 2011, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin sent a letter to Gambia's justice minister, Edward Gomez, appealing for Manneh's release.

Durbin, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a similar letter to Jammeh in March 2010, according to the website of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In October 2011, Gomez was quoted in a local media report as saying that Manneh was alive but was not in the custody of the Gambian government.

CPJ, which has criticized Gambia for attacks on the press and Jammeh for publicly vilifying reporters, says Manneh was sighted in government custody in December 2006 and in July 2007.

According to CPJ, a leading press-freedom watchdog, Gambia has resisted international appeals to free Manneh by, among others, six U.S. senators, the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States.

Amnesty International is among the human rights groups that have called on Gambia to release Manneh. (Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Eric Beech)

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