Banjul, The Gambia (September 18, 2012)--In a whirlwind display of citizen diplomacy, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson landed in The Gambia on Sunday, jet-lagged and exhausted, met Monday one-on-one for hours, from bright daylight to deep dusk, with the President of this West African nation and left late Tuesday night for the United States with two freed Americans who had, less than 24 hours before, been serving prison sentences of 20 years to life.
But the emotional highlight of Rev. Jackson’s freelance mission of mercy occurred during a surprise encounter inside the dingy yellow lobby of the United States Embassy here Tuesday morning as American and Gambian staff members applauded and wiped away tears.
Haddy Jasseh, the wife of one of the imprisoned Americans, Tamsir Jasseh, fell into Jackson’s arms, weeping her thanks to him for persuading the Gambian President to free her husband, who was entering the seventh year of a 20-year sentence for treason.
Tamsir Jasseh, a United States Navy veteran, and Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former professor at the University of Tennessee, who was serving a life-sentence for treason, have dual American and Gambian citizenship. Both men were tried and convicted for taking part in coup attempts.
“I’m just so grateful,’’ Haddy Jasseh said. “I can’t even express it.’’
Then her two young sons embraced Jackson and he turned away, trying to fight back his own tears.
He lost that fight.
“Tears of joy just flowed, because she couldn’t stop crying and the boys couldn’t stop crying,’’ Rev. Jackson said. “It was the kind of moment you don’t see very often. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last, it was one of those moments of freedom.’’
Bringing the two Americans home, however, was not Rev. Jackson’s only victory during his two and a half days on the West African coast. After meeting with him in his wood paneled office at the Gambia State House in downtown Banjul, President Dr. Yahya Jammeh also announced an indefinite moratorium on the death penalty, a move Rev. Jackson said provides “a great opportunity’’ to strengthen the relationship between the United States and The Gambia.
That relationship was under considerable strain just days before. In August, nine people on the country’s death row, including a woman, were executed by firing squad, even before some of the condemned had exhausted their legal appeals. The executions were widely criticized in Africa and Europe as arbitrary.
Then, President Jammeh said he planned to execute the 37 remaining death row inmates by the end of September to send a message that violent crime would not be tolerated in the nation of 1.6 million people.
Rev. Jackson joined much of the world in asking the President not to go through with his plans. The Chicago-based human rights advocate organized a delegation of ministers and professors to travel to The Gambia to make their appeal in person. But the day before the delegation arrived, President Jammeh announced he was suspending the executions. Then after meeting with Rev. Jackson, the President said the suspension would be indefinite.
Rev. Jackson praised President Jammeh’s “humantarian’’ decision. “People can analysis his motives, his politics, but all I know is that 37 people who were scheduled to die are now scheduled to live,’’ he said.
And two men scheduled to rot in prison are now headed home to America.
Haddy Jasseh was at her home in Bansul, preparing dinner for her sons, before getting them ready for bed for school the next morning, when the telephone rang about 8 p.m.
The caller was Andy Utschig, the embassy’s consular officer, charged with visiting the imprisoned Americans.
Utschig told her that it looked like her husband would be freed the next day and allowed to return to the United States that night with Rev. Jackson.
“It was like a dream,’’ she said.
Her first instinct was to rush outside and tell her neighbors that her husband was free.
But Utschig cautioned that the situation was still delicate. She said he told her not to say a word to the neighbors.
She hung up and told her sons – Pa Modou, 13 and Ousman, 9 – that finally, perhaps their prayers had been answered.
She told them that their “Daddy might be free tomorrow, and this one,’’ she said, rubbing Pa’s shoulder, “started crying.’’
He also ran to put on his new school shoes.
“Where are you going all dressed up?’’ she asked, laughing with joy.
“Mommy, I’m happy,’’ he told her. “This is how I’m going to express it. I want to dress up.’’
Soon, the telephone was ringing and ringing and ringing. Family and friends were calling. The news was on television. The men were going to be sent home with Rev. Jackson.
She was laughing and crying at the same time.
“The next thing I was just out in the street, going from house to house, telling everybody that my husband has been released,’’ she said.
“And hugging everybody,’’ her son, Pa, added. “And singing in the car.’’
When she returned to her home, she could not sleep. She paced. She prayed. She watched television. Finally, early Tuesday morning, she nodded off but then the telephone started ringing again and again and again.
“We tried to call you last night, but we could not get through,’’ the callers said.
A couple of hours later, Edward “Ned’’ Alford, the US Ambassador to The Gambia, led her through the crowded embassy lobby to met Rev. Jackson for the first time.
She fell into his arms, weeping.
Later, after regaining her composure, she said the day before a friend had called to say Rev. Jackson was in The Gambia.
She said she told her sons that if she could meet him, “it would be the happiest day of my life,’’ because maybe human rights activist from Chicago could help free their daddy.
“Then next, within 30 minutes, the phone rang, honest to God,’’ she said.
It was the embassy.
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition is a progressive organization devoted to protecting, defending and expanding civil rights to improve economic and educational opportunity. The organization is headquartered at 930 E. 50th St. in Chicago. To learn more, please visit www.rainbowpush.org or call (773) 373-3366. To arrange an interview with Rev. Jackson, please call the numbers listed above.