Judgment day in Gambia for the armed robber who found God

Two British missionaries accused of sedition will be sentenced today
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With one of west Africa's worst human rights records, a disintegrating legal system and a capricious President who has championed a banana-based cure for Aids, the reality of coup-prone Gambia has long belied its reputation as a tropical paradise for budget-conscious tourists. For David and Fiona Fulton, two freelance British missionaries who have devoted nine years of their lives to helping the people of their adopted home, the Gambian authorities' determination to stifle dissent within its borders became all too evident when they were arrested a month ago accused of sedition.

Today, the religious couple, originally from Torquay in Devon, will step into a steamy courtroom in the capital, Banjul, to learn whether their decision to plead guilty to what they claim are trumped-up charges will be enough to save them from a possible year-long sentence in one of Africa's toughest jails, the former colonial penal institute of Mile Two Prison.

The Fultons, who met two decades ago in England when he found God while serving a sentence for armed robbery and she was a prison visitor, have yet to see the details of what exactly they are accused of, although campaigners say this is not unusual in Gambia. The couple were arrested on 29 November at their home at Kerr Sering, an hour's drive from the capital through tropical bush. They were accused of spreading "hatred against the government" via a series of round-robin emails believed to relate to their missionary work. It is thought that they were denounced by a former friend who took one of the missives to local police.

Despite their deteriorating health, they have been kept in jail since their arrest and been unable to meet bail conditions. Mrs Fulton, 46, has been held in a police station cell, visited by her adopted two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who is being looked after by a family friend. Mr Fulton, 60, has spent the past four weeks in the solitary confinement wing of a high-security jail, where he has been refusing food for fear it may be poisoned.

According to Pastor Martin Speed, of Westhoughton Pentecostal Church in Bolton, who has been campaigning for the Fultons' release, the couple were advised to admit the sedition charge in the hope the judge will show leniency.

"We are praying it will be a fine and they will be deported," Pastor Speed said. "Since pleading guilty Dave has been able to have visitors. I am sure that their faith is their great strength at the moment and the support of all the people that are praying for them," he said. As well as orchestrating prayers through a religious website, Mr Speed has been encouraging evangelical supporters to lobby politicians urging them to intervene in the case.

So far, it seems to have had little effect. Alistair Fulton, a cousin of David who spoke to Fiona last week, said: "It's taking its toll on them physically and mentally. They are strong people, but this is over a month that they have been in custody."

Being a missionary in Gambia, a former British colony which has had six coup attempts in the 14-year rule of President Yahya Jammeh, has become an increasingly precarious business. Though officially a secular state, the country is 97 per cent Muslim. Since the latest coup plot was foiled in March 2006 – when 59 people were arrested, many of them unlawfully detained, and subjected to unfair trial, torture or extrajudicial execution – the government has shown a growing disregard for the rule of law, according to campaigners.

Amnesty International believes at least 30 alleged government opponents are being held in poor conditions in Mile Two without charge or access to lawyers or their families. A recent report by the human rights watchdog concluded: "Lawyers are reluctant to take on human rights cases for fear of reprisals and families of victims are afraid to speak out. The media, for the most part, censors itself in the face of arrests, fines, threats and physical attacks on those accused of criticising the government. All public protests have ceased."

Ironically, the Fultons spent much of their time working with the authorities since arriving in Africa's smallest mainland nation to work as freelance missionaries. They told family and friends that they fell in love with the people and the relaxed way of life.

Mr Fulton was a chaplain in the Gambian army and at the national airport and had begun ministering to spiritual needs at the immigration posts that dot the long frontiers with Senegal, to the north, south and east. Much of his work has involved gruelling 10-day journeys up the Gambia river.

Meanwhile, Mrs Fulton, who has two other children, has spent her time training prison chaplains, looking after terminally ill people and visiting female hospital patients.

Since their arrest, the Fultons have been allowed only occasional contact with their family in Britain, including elderly parents now in their eighties. When they have been allowed to communicate with the outside world it has been under jailers' watchful eyes. The family says it is now too scared to visit the country for fear of arrest and is reliant on media reports to keep abreast of developments.

During the couple's appearance in court on Christmas Eve, they apologised and said they regretted what they had done while promising to be bound by an agreement not to criticise Gambia in the future.

Gambia: Fading ties with UK

History Former slaving hub and British colony, it became independent in 1965.

Capital Banjul

Population 1,7m

GDP per capita £902 per annum

Economy Farming and tourism

Politics Republic in Commonwealth

President Retired colonel Yahya Jammeh has been in power for 14 years. He has foiled six coup attempts.

Religion 97 per cent Muslim, three per cent Christian