Banjul - Shadowy paramilitaries and secret police in Gambia are fuelling a growing refugee crisis through atrocities committed against critics of one of the world's most repressive regimes, a new study said Thursday.
"State of Fear", the first ever report on the west African nation by Human Rights Watch, details extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances which it says are "rife" in the tourist paradise.
"Gambia may be (mainland) Africa's smallest country but it also accounts for a growing number of people in the current migration crisis gripping Europe," HRW said on the release of the 81-page report.
"While some Gambians arriving in Europe by boat are likely economic migrants, significant numbers of political refugees are fleeing overland to Senegal.
"Either way, there's no doubt that Gambia today is fuelling a growing refugee movement."
Every year, tens of thousands of Western tourists visit "The Smiling Coast", which marked its 50th year of independence in February, in a milestone seen by critics as tainted by the country's dismal human rights record.
President Yahya Jammeh, an outspoken military officer and former wrestler, has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist and an aura of mysticism since seizing power in 1994.
The nation of 1.8 million, one of the poorest in the world, survives mostly off agriculture and tourism, luring sun-worshipping Europeans to its sweeping, palm-fringed coastline.- Near suffocation -
"Looking beyond Gambia's beautiful beaches, the population lives in a climate of fear in which injustice prevails and accountability for abuses is beyond reach," said Felicity Thompson, author of the report.
HRW says it was prompted to investigate after the presidential guard put down an attempted power grab in December last year blamed mainly on ex-servicemen from the Gambian and US armed forces while Jammeh was in Dubai.
A wave of arrests, detentions and harassment followed, targeting family members of those suspected of involvement, relatives and right groups have said.
Also read: 'Missing' Gambian journalist in court on sedation charge
"State of Fear", based on interviews with dozens of journalists, rights activists, political opponents and members of the LGBT community, says security forces frequently detain people secretly for months and even years.
The country's feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA), a paramilitary group known as the "Jungulers" and armed units of the Gambian Police Force have been most frequently implicated in torture and killings.
"When (Jammeh) wants to torture you, he uses the Jungulers team to torture you. Or if he wants to arrest you secretly, he uses this Jungulers team," the report quoted one former member of the organisation as saying.
"Or when he wants to kill you without anyone finding out, they will just kill you and throw you (away)."
Victims told HRW of torture methods that included severe beatings, rape, near suffocation with plastic bags, electric shocks to the genitals and melted plastic bags being dripped onto the skin. - Mock executions -
Victims described psychological abuse such as prolonged periods in solitary confinement and mock executions.
The report highlights repression of the media, singling out the case of Alagie Ceesay, manager of the Teranga FM radio station, who was detained by the NIA in July, held incommunicado for 11 days, released and rearrested.
Now on trial for sedition, he was "beaten until he fell unconscious and was forced to drink cooking oil like water on several occasions," said HRW, citing a source who saw the journalist after his temporary release.
The report also highlights homophobic abuse under the regime of Jammeh, who was reported to have said at a rally in May that he would "slit the throats" of gay Gambians.
HRW said dozens of Gambians had fled after the introduction of an "aggravated homosexuality" law in October 2014 imposing life sentences for a series of new offences.
In July, on the 21st anniversary of the coup that brought Jammeh to power, he pardoned and released more than 200 political prisoners, family members of alleged coup plotters and other detainees.
But HRW urged the international community to do more to raise concerns over human rights with government officials and to press for accountability.
"So long as security forces and paramilitary groups act with impunity, Gambians will suffer."