Tears as British couple get year's hard labour

Gambian judge makes an example of Christians who criticised Muslim state

Two British missionaries broke down and wept as they were sentenced to a year's hard labour in jail after pleading guilty to charges of sedition. Relatives and friends of David and Fiona Fulton, who have three children – including a two-year-old adopted daughter – expressed their dismay and horror at the severity of the punishment handed down to the couple from Torquay by a court in Gambia.

The judge quoted from an email sent in September, entitled "Hell In The Gambia," in which the country, which is 97 per cent Muslim, is described as "sinking fast into a morass of Islam". The couple face imprisonment at the country's high-security Mile Two jail. It houses some of the state's toughest inmates – including some women. Malaria and beriberi are reported to be prevalent there.

The Foreign Office is seeking clarification over details of the sentence and where the couple will serve it. One report suggested they could be billetted to work on peanut plantations, where malaria is common. Conditions inside the jail, a British prison during colonial times, are said to be harsh. Prisoners say they are routinely exposed to malaria and afterwards are refused treatment. According to a recent Amnesty International report, some inmates rely on provisions brought in by their families in order to survive. Some die from beriberi, an illness associated with poor diet.

The presiding magistrate in the case, Idrissa Mbai, said that he intended the sentence to deter others seeking to criticise the government of President Yahya Jammeh, who has cracked down on dissent in the wake of a series of coup attempts.

"I found the offences of the accused party to be very shocking. They have shown no respect for the country, the government and the president of the republic. I will send a clear message to the offenders," he said. He also imposed fines of £6,250 on each of the defendants. Failure to pay will result in an additonal six months in prison, he said. The Fultons have 20 days to appeal against the sentence, their lawyer, Antouman Gaye, said.

Mr Fulton, 60, a former British Army major and Mrs Fulton, 46, were arrested on 29 November after a former associate handed over round-robin e-mails allegedly criticising the government. They pleaded guilty to the charges and apologised, hoping to earn a more lenient sentence.

Mile Two Prison: The harsh reality

The Fultons are likely to be jailed in Mile Two prison of which Amnesty has said: "The harsh conditions – overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and foul food – can in themselves be considered a form of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment." One former inmate, known as Sheriff, 34, told investigators: "People are dying every day. It is due to the food mostly. They served us expired rice and other food that is rotten. So many people are getting beriberi and dying." The jail was built by the British.