* Could roughly double assistance over next 7 years
* EU spokesman says bloc concerned over rights in Gambia
* Spain, Italy push for funding amid concern over migration
* Northern EU nations want greater emphasis on rights
By Misha Hussain
DAKAR, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The European Union may double aid to Gambia to 150 million euros over the next seven years, creating a split between EU members on whether to fund countries with poor human-rights records, diplomats said.
Gambia has received some 75 million euros of aid over the past six years from the European Development Fund (EDF). But in talks known as Article 8 dialogues, it has shown little interest in engaging with EU policy on governance, diplomats say.
President Yahya Jammeh drew international condemnation by executing prisoners in 2012, subjecting political opponents to torture and forcing them to confess to sedition on television. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, he attacked gay rights as a threat to humanity.
"The EU is seriously concerned about human rights and governance in Gambia," Alexandre Polack, a spokesman for the EU Development Commissioner, wrote in an e-mail. "For the next two years, the EU intends to allocate a limited envelope of up to 25 million euros to support the Article 8 dialogue."
Polack said longer-term funding was under discussion. If EU members agree, up to 150 million euros is available over the next seven years. The exact amount would depend on the outcome of an Article 8 meeting scheduled for early February. Funding could be blocked if enough EU member states oppose the proposal.
That has created considerable tension within the bloc, diplomats said. Spain and Italy have a vested interest in Gambia's development, said one EU diplomat who asked to remain anonymous, because they are the destination for poverty-related migration from West Africa.
Northern EU nations, including Britain, say Jammeh's disregard for human rights must be addressed and suspending aid might be used to punish the government, said the diplomat.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation has learned that Burundi and Madagascar, which have poor human-rights records as well, also stand to get more aid over the bloc's 2014-2020 development plan. Their funding illustrates the flaws in trying to use EDF to bargain for improved governance in sub-Saharan Africa.
Jammeh seized power in a 1994 coup and has been elected four times since then. He has said repeatedly his government will not make policy concessions based on promises of aid. In October, he pulled out of the Commonwealth, which groups Britain and most of its former colonies. The same month, he accused London and Washington of plotting to overthrow his government.
EU diplomats agree that a halt to funding might hurt the Gambian population. But they worry that continuing it may help prop up Jammeh's regime. Development aid accounts for 12.6 percent of the national income.
"The EU needs to set concrete objectives within the Article 8 dialogue to show improvement," said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Gambia researcher for Amnesty International. "If the EU made these public, civil society and the media could hold both parties accountable." (Editing by Larry King)
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