Civil Rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. once again used his diplomatic skills to secure the release of American citizens held captive by foreign governments or entities. This time Jackson successfully talked face to face with the president of The Gambia, Alhaji Yahya Jammeh, Ph.D., and was able to convince the head of state to release men who were serving long sentences for treason.

They traveled by plane to New York with Jackson on Wednesday, Sept. 19.

Among Jackson’s previous diplomatic acts are securing the release in 1984 of Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman, who had been shot down over Lebanon while on a mission to bomb Syrian positions in that country. That same year he went on a “moral offensive” to Central America and Cuba, which culminated in Fidel Castro’s release of 49 prisoners.

In 1991, he helped secure the release of 500 “international guests” held in Iraq. In 1999, he worked to convince Yugoslavia to release three U.S. soldiers held there during the Kosovo conflict; In May of that same year, Jackson traveled to war-torn Sierra Leone, where he negotiated a cease-fire agreement between Tejan Kabbah, the country’s president, and rebel Foday Sankoh. Jackson also negotiated for the release of more than 2,000 prisoners of war.
Although Jackson has no official diplomatic credentials, under the Clinton administration he was Special Envoy to Africa.

The two Gambian-American citizens he recently helped are Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former professor at the University of Tennessee, and Tamsi Jasseh, a U.S. veteran who served in Desert Storm. Both hold American and Gambian dual citizenship.

Janneh, a former Gambian information minister, was sentenced to life in prison for distributing T-shirts bearing “Down with Dictatorship Now.”

Jasseh was the former director of the Immigration department and was credited with having attempted to delineate the functions of Gambia’s many different security agencies. But he allegedly fell out with Jammeh and was later accused of involvement in a failed coup attempt in 2006. He was serving a 20-year sentence.

In addition to the release of the two Americans, Jackson was able to get President Jammeh to indefinitely extend a moratorium on the death penalty in the country and hold off on the execution of 38 prisoners currently on death row. In late August, nine prisoners including one woman were executed by firing squad, and the West African nation has been under intense international pressure.

The Gambian president is also allowing the United Nations to investigate the disappearance of a Gambian newspaper reporter who disappeared shortly after being arrested by local authorities six year ago.

Many of the death row inmates are former officials and top military officers who have been detained for treason since 1994 when Jammeh took power in a coup. He was elected president two years later and has won every election since then.

The Gambia does not adhere to international standards on fair trials, according to Audrey Gaughran, the Africa director for Amnesty International.

Gambia’s human rights record has drawn steady criticism since Jammeh’s election, but the president has won supporters by building new hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Africa Subcommittee, said this about Jackson’s actions: “I’d like to offer my sincere thanks and gratitude to Rev. Jesse Jackson for his extraordinary efforts to free two Americans from harsh imprisonment in Gambia, allowing them to return home to the U.S. to be with their loved ones.”

“Rev. Jackson has a history of serving as an international diplomat in sensitive situations like this one, including the release of Navy Lieutenant Robert Goodman from Syria and 48 Cuban and Cuban-American prisoners from Cuba.

“Rev. Jackson’s leadership has been invaluable in this situation and I commend his foresight to assure these American citizens are able to be in the safety of their homes with the people they love most.”