March 18, 2009 / 7:09 PM / 8 years ago

Up to 1,000 detained in Gambia witch hunt: Amnesty

DAKAR (Reuters) - Witch doctors and security forces in Gambia have detained up to 1,000 people on suspicion of being witches, Amnesty International said on Wednesday. Police in the African country dismissed the reports as lies.

Victims have been held in secret detention camps for up to five days and forced to drink hallucinogenic substances which have killed at least two people through kidney failure, the London-based human rights organization said in a statement.

"At 5 a.m. the paramilitary police armed with guns and shovels surrounded our village and threatened the villagers that anyone who tries to escape will be buried six feet under," it quoted an unidentified eyewitness as saying of a recent raid.

Around 300 men and women were forced on to buses at gunpoint and taken to President Yahya Jammeh's home area of Kanilai, Amnesty quoted the witness as saying.

"Once there, they were stripped and forced to drink 'dirty water' from herbs and were also bathed with these dirty herbs. A lot of these people who were forced to drink these poisonous herbs developed instant diarrhoea and vomiting whilst they lay helpless," the witness added.

Gambia's inspector general of police, Essa Badjie, rejected the reports as lies.

"I think they are neglecting what is happening in Afghanistan. They are lying," he told Reuters by telephone.

"Tell them they are lying. See what is happening in Palestine and Iraq... The Gambia is a peaceful country," he said. Other officials could not be reached for comment.

Amnesty said eyewitnesses and victims said the people seeking witches, themselves known as witch doctors, had come from nearby Guinea, but were accompanied on their raids by Gambian police and army and national intelligence agents, along with members of Jammeh's personal guard, known as "green boys."

Gambia, a tiny sliver of land along the banks of the eponymous river jutting into the middle of surrounding Senegal, is mainland Africa's smallest state.

Human rights organizations and press freedom watchdogs accuse Jammeh's administration and security forces of using arbitrary detention and other abuses of power to gag political opponents and restrict freedom of expression.

Halifa Sallah, a leading opposition figure who challenged Jammeh in the country's most recent presidential elections in 2006, was arrested 10 days ago and charged last week with spying, sedition and holding an illegal meeting.

Party officials said then that Sallah had been arrested after traveling outside the capital Banjul to investigate reports that armed groups were going from village to village searching for witches.

Belief in witchcraft is common in West Africa, where traditional animist beliefs coexist with Islam and Christianity.

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