Survivors of Gambian Dictator’s Bogus AIDS “Cure” Speak Out, Seek Justice
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December 5, 2017 (Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire) — Three survivors of former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh’s fraudulent AIDS “cure” recounted their harrowing experiences and their determination to bring the dictator to justice during a press conference at the 19th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) today.
Survivors-turned-activists Lamin Cessay, Fatou Jatta, and Ousman Sowe described a ten-year nightmare that began with Jammeh’s 2007 declaration that he had found a cure for AIDS. From then until his brutal reign was ended in 2016, the dictator coerced at least 9000 Gambians—the great majority of whom were living with HIV—into receiving his herbal remedies through an elaborate “Presidential Alternative Treatment Program.” His alleged “cure” for AIDS was widely condemned by the international community as a sham.
Today’s press conference was organized by AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization that has been working since March with activists and attorneys in The Gambia to pursue justice for victims, who suffered one of the most egregious orchestrated assaults on people living with HIV in the history of the global AIDS crisis.
Mr. Ousman Sowe, 64, a former university lecturer, was initially a believer in Jammeh's methods. He served as the chief spokesperson for the center and was quoted praising the "cure" in international media outlets such as the BBC. But he came to realize that it was all a vicious hoax. "I believe that it is my responsibility to see that justice be done," he said. “I knew that one day the real story would be told.”
Like most of those directed to enter the bogus treatment program, the survivors who addressed media today had been targeted by the former President because they were members of HIV and AIDS support groups. Once conscripted, they were ordered to stop taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and any other conventional medicines. Enrollees were not permitted to leave the premises; contact with friends and loved ones was strictly monitored, and armed soldiers maintained tight security.
"It was a disaster," Fatou Jatta, 51, told journalists today. Ms. Jatta was one of the first Gambians taken into Jammeh's care in 2007. Although she grew progressively weaker during her nine months of treatment, the dictator pronounced her cured. When she was discharged, she was near death. She only recovered with the help of ARVs.
Jammeh often administered the home-brew concoction himself, slathering the substance on victims' bodies or forcing them to ingest it in liquid form. Some sessions were broadcast on Gambian television with the unwilling participation of “patients” who had not yet disclosed their HIV status to family and friends.
Many victims suffered serious health setbacks. Some became infected with opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis. Some died while at the treatment center, although the exact figure is not known.
Mr. Lamin Cessay, 62, was the first person in The Gambia to publicly reveal his HIV status, which he declared on World AIDS Day in December 2000. He went into Jammeh's center with his wife, who eventually died. “I cannot even count the number of people that died during the treatment,” he said. And many more died, he noted, after they were declared “cured” and discharged from the center.
Critics of Yahya Jammeh and his phony "cure" suffered retaliation while the tyrant remained in power. In 2007, Jammeh expelled UN officials from The Gambia for challenging the legitimacy of his methods.
AIDS-Free World, working in concert with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, Gambian lawyers, and international partners including UNAIDS, is supporting the survivors and relatives of those who died at Jammeh's hands to pursue all possible legal avenues in their search for justice.
"The victims' experiences are part of wide-ranging human rights violations committed by Jammeh and his regime," said Sarah Bosha, Legal Research and Policy Associate with AIDS-Free World. Saramba Kandeh, the organization’s Legal and Gender Associate, added that, "The survivors deserve justice and reparations for the horrors they went through. And people living with HIV deserve to know that an atrocity like this one will never be repeated again."
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AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization working to address the systemic inequalities that have allowed HIV to flourish. For more information, visit: www.aidsfreeworld.org