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Two missionaries convicted to one year hard labour

British missionaries David and Fiona Fulton have been convicted after pleading guilty to charges of sedition or inciting resistance to lawful authority in the West African state of Gambia. They have been sentenced to one year jail with hard labour.

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AFP - A British missionary couple working in the tiny west African state of Gambia, which has been criticised for its abysmal human rights record, have been sentenced to one-year prison terms with hard labour.

David and Fiona Fulton who were arrested in Banjul on November 29 were also fined 250,000 Dalasis (9,325 dollars, 6,750 euros), after pleading guilty to charges of sedition or inciting resistance to lawful authority.

They are the first foreign nationals to be slapped with a jail sentence for sedition in the African nation.

According to British media, the couple were critical of The Gambia, a popular African tourism destination for Britons, in a series of round-robin e-mails believed to be related to their Christian missionary work in the predominantly Muslim state.

As the judge read out the sentences, the couple and some of their friends present in court burst into tears.

In a heartbreaking scene at the start of the ruling the judge ordered couple's two year-old adopted daughter to be removed from the court because her cries of "Mommy, Mommy" were disturbing the proceedings.

The husband and wife missionary team had admitted to publishing e-mails with seditious comments with the intent to bring hatred or contempt against Gambia's president or the government.

"I found the offences of the accused party to be very shocking and 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," presiding magistrate Idrissa Mbai said.

The Fultons can lodge an appeal within 20 days but it was not immediately clear if they would do so. Their lawyer Antouman Gaye told AFP he had not yet had contact with his clients regarding an appeal.

The Fultons, who have been living in Gambia since 1999, have ties to the Westhoughton Pentecostal Church outside Bolton in northwest England.

According to the church's website, Fulton is chaplain for the Gambian army and has a ministry on the river, which involves reaching villages only accessible by boat. His wife looks after terminally ill people.

According to the Gambian authorities the couple are also running an educational centre and provided free medical care for prison inmates.

Last week the two missionaries pleaded guilty to charges of sedition against the government of President Yahya Jammeh. They issued a public apology but their remorse did not mollify the judge.

Both David Fulton, 60, and his 46-year-old wife Fiona, who have been in custody since their arrest, were taken to Banjul's Mile Two prison immediately after the verdict was read out.

Ironically, they will be held in the same prison they visited regularly as part of their missionary work. In a recent Amnesty International report the conditions in the Mile Two prison were described as harsh with "overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and foul food".

The human rights watchdog says it has received reports of at least 19 people who have died in the infamous prison since 2005.

Gambia, a tiny country inside Senegal, has one of the worst human rights records in west Africa. Jammeh, an outspoken military officer and former wrestler, has ruled the former British colony since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1994.

Earlier this year there were two cases of Gambian journalists convicted on charges of sedition, but both got away with fines and did not have to serve jail time.

Observers say the conviction of the British couple could backfire for Gambia which is largely dependent on tourism revenues. Nearly half of the some 100,000 tourists that visit the country each year are British.

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