An American in Peril

Because neither international observers nor his family have been able to visit, the cell where Hassan Touray is living can only be imagined. A U.S. citizen from Texas, Touray is being incarcerated in the notorious Mile 2 Prison in The Gambia, Africa. He has told the U.S. Embassy that he is in a 9 x 11 feet cell with 22 other inmates, and their bodily excretions. There is barely enough room to sit, and sleep is impossible.

"This is like a bad movie for us," said Abdourahman Touray. "You can't believe these things happen to civilized people in 2011, but it has, and right now we don't know what to do."

There is no evidence Hassan Touray has committed a crime. He is not even a suspect. He is, instead, an apparent victim of The Gambia's dictator, Yahya AJJ Jammeh, who has ruled the country since a military coup in 1994 overthrew a democratically elected president. Jammeh, who claims to have a cure for AIDS and has made up to a thousand villagers drink a poisonous concoction to rid them of witchcraft, has been busy silencing dissent and finding insidious ways to appropriate private property.

Hassan and Abdourahman Touray were raised on a family farm in Mansajang Kunda in the Upper River Region of The Gambia and went to the U.S. for computer science degrees. Abdourahman was educated at Columbia in New York City while Hassan went further west to the University of North Texas in Denton. They were, almost immediately, successful in their jobs on Wall Street and at Pepsico in Dallas. Hassan married, began raising a family, and became a U.S. citizen. Abdourahman launched a startup technology company in Chicago, and became a permanent legal resident. As their lives and careers flourished, however, the brothers were unable to stop thinking of their impoverished homeland.

"I guess we both felt guilty," Abdourahman said. "We were both doing very, very well in America and had good lives but thought we should be giving back to the poor country we came from. That's where this began."

The business idea that began to form was to try to turn The Gambia into an outsourcing capital like India and train young people to do software and systems support. Family and friends invested and loans were secured after the completion of a business plan. Unfortunately, they were unable to procure customers in their home country.

"It was extremely tough," Abdourahman explained. "You don't get contracts unless you bribe someone. We were told we cannot play unless we pay. We put in very good bids on projects but never heard anything."

Their luck changed when The Gambia's federal government approached the Touray's company, Pristine Consulting, and asked them to bid with two other firms on a project to modernize the national identification card system. They structured loans from within their country and investors from the U.S. for a total of $2 million and won the contract, which was signed in 2009. Immediately, the Tourays set up a program to identify and teach bright young students from impoverished families. Their foundation funded high school scholarships and then provided training upon graduation.

Pristine Consulting began to produce and deliver a range of ID cards for the Gambian government. By contractual agreement, these included national and alien identity cards, workers' permits, drivers' licenses, passports, visas, and birth and marriage certificates. When the first payment of several hundred thousand dollars was due, the Tourays issued an invoice to the government. No payment was forthcoming, and their company's funds were depleting. They turned to phone calls and letters and intermediaries and lawyers but went a year without being paid.

And then Hassan Touray was arrested.

Government security agents showed up at Pristine Consulting's office and took him into custody. He was held for 24 days without charge until the family was able to post a bail of $800,000 in property. The Tourays saw no option but to persist in attempts to recover their investment in time and money so they continued to seek remuneration. Finally, they filed a civil suit against the government. A docket date was set for April 19th of this year, but before Hassan Touray made it to the courthouse, government officers once more arrested him. His bail was revoked and he was sent to Mile 2 Prison. The government, eventually, filed four counts claiming Hassan and Abdourahman "converted" $20 million Dalisi (GMD) of Gambian currency after taking payment for the ID cards.

"We've yet to receive any money," Abdourahman explained. "We don't know what the charges are and every time we approach a court hearing, the case is adjourned. That's happened eight times now. We don't know what this 'converted' means, either."

Abdourahman, who has not been arrested, has been in the U.S. while his brother has been held at Mile 2 Prison since April 19th. The media and the International Red Cross have not been granted access to Mile 2, but there is evidence of the great risk being faced by Hassan Touray. A former police commissioner has testified that prisoners in the past have been fed with meat that has resulted in deaths and the director general of the prison services also has told a court that as many as 40 inmates died in 2007 as a result of chronic anemia, abdominal pain, and food poisoning. The U.S. State Department's Human Rights reports from recent years have indicated that some inmates have been detained in Mile 2 without trial for up to four years.

Hassan Touray can avoid all of these dangers, prosecutors have informed him, if he will just pay another $800,000 in property and $400,000 in cash for bail. There is no indication his family will be returned the original property or anything else they might surrender for his freedom.

President Jammeh's apparent greed and idiosyncrasies have proved dangerous to other outside investors in The Gambia. Carnegie Minerals, PLC, an Australian company, was working a zircon mine when it was ordered by Jammeh to halt operations. The president, who is also the Secretary of State for Mineral Resources, accused Carnegie of the economic crime of mining uranium and titanium when it only had a license for mineral sands. Carnegie's country manager for The Gambia, Charlie Northfield, pointed out that uranium tracings are found in soil around the globe but there was nothing significant in their zircon plot. Carnegie's license, nonetheless, was canceled, and Northfield was taken into custody. Jammeh went on TV to announce the amazing new discovery of uranium while bail was set for Northfield at $450,000 AUD. Carnegie bailed out its manager, abandoned the mine, and watched its stock drop almost a quarter in a matter of days. The Gambia does not have uranium resources.

Jammeh also does not countenance a free press or criticism of his government. Less than two years ago, six of his nation's journalists, including three executive members of the Gambian Press Union, were sentenced to two years in Mile 2 Prison. They were also fined $10,000 and informed that failure to pay, an astronomical sum for a Gambian journalist, would result in an additional two years incarceration. The six were charged with sedition for questioning broadcast remarks by the president regarding the unsolved murder of an editor in Banjul.

The president's intellectual curiosities are equally inexplicable. After his aunt died, he blamed her passing on witches and gathered up about 1,000 people, locked them in secret detention centers, and forced them to drink hallucinogenic poison to destroy their power as witches. 300 were taken from the village of Sintet, according to Amnesty International, and were made to imbibe a solution that caused instant vomiting and diarrhea.

"I experienced and witnessed such abuse and humiliation," a victim told Amnesty International. "I cannot believe that this type of treatment is taking place in Gambia. It is from the dark ages."

Witches, however, might be safer in The Gambia than homosexuals. The president told the National Assembly that homosexuality was "strange behavior that even God will not tolerate," and he later ordered police to arrest homosexuals for what he described as their "criminal practice." Eventually, he told all LGBT persons to leave The Gambia or he would cut off their heads.

The U.S. Embassy in Banjul, obviously, does not have a simple task in dealing with President Jammeh to secure the safety and release of Hassan Touray. A consular for the U.S. State Department had little detail to offer and said only, "Embassy staff have visited Mr. Touray on several occasions and has been in communication with Gambian officials regarding his case" and that they "continue to request regular consular access from Gambian officials."

Touray's wife, an American of Gambian descent, is able to visit with him almost daily in a prison meeting room and gives him the latest news on their two small children. She describes her husband as "psychologically strong" but there is undoubtedly a degree of incomprehensible circumstantial absurdity to his situation for Hassan Touray.

Touray went home to help. He raised money for his village's health care clinic, served on a cancer foundation board, and was creating jobs for a nation where most of the 1.7 million people never see $1,000 in their entire lives. His altruism, however, has led to his imprisonment.

And his friends are hopeful that the U.S., his new homeland, will not abandon Hassan Touray to the whims and injustices of an unstable dictator.

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