(Dakar) – Gambia should free an ailing journalist who has been arbitrarily detained since July 2015 and drop all charges against him, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today.

Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay, the managing director of the independent radio station Teranga FM, has been charged with sedition and “publication of false news.”  He has been hospitalized twice since the beginning of 2016. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on Gambia last week to release Ceesay and drop all charges against him.

“The use of archaic sedition laws to harass and lock up critics is a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International deputy regional director for West and Central Africa. “Alagie Ceesay’s case is a further example of Gambia’s blatant disregard for freedom of the press, and he should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Ceesay was arrested on July 2 by the National Intelligence Agency after he privately shared by phone a picture in which a gun was pointed toward a photograph of President Yahya Jammeh. The image had been circulating on the internet, and Ceesay was not its author. His radio station, Teranga FM, had been closed down several times over the past years.

During his detention Alagie Ceesay has been held ‘incommunicado’ for two periods by members of the Gambian security forces. Ceesay was held in an unknown location from July 2 to July 13, then released.

He was rearrested on July 17 and detained at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters, which is not an official place of detention, without access to a lawyer or his family. He was taken before the High Court on August 25 and charged with six counts of sedition under Section 52 of the Gambian Criminal Code, and publication of false news with intent to cause fear and alarm among the public. He is currently held at Mile 2 prison on the outskirts of the capital, Banjul. In February this year, he was denied bail for the fourth time.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released an opinion last week, adopted during its last session in December 2015, that Ceesay had been arbitrarily deprived of liberty. It said he should be released immediately and given an enforceable right to compensation. It also said the government should ensure that freedom of opinion and expression is better protected and called for an investigation into allegations that Ceesay has been tortured.

Ceesay’s health has been deteriorating since the beginning of 2016. On January 13, he was hospitalized after complaining for over a month about stomach pains and difficulties sleeping. A doctor diagnosed him with an enlarged liver and prescribed pain medication. On February 29, he was readmitted to the same hospital for an asthma attack and returned to prison on March 1.

“Alhagie Ceesay should not have been locked up in the first place,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The deterioration in his health only underscores the urgent need to release him.”

Gambia should amend several draconian laws that give authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain critics and violate international and regional standards on the right to freedom of expression, the organizations said. These include the law on seditious publication, the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act 2013 and the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2013.

In April 2015, Gambia rejected 78 of the 171 recommendations at the Universal Periodic Review of human rights conditions in the country by the United Nations. The recommendations it rejected included removing restrictions on freedom of expression.

Gambia has not implemented the judgments of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice in three cases related to journalists: the enforced disappearance of Ebrima Manneh in 2010; the torture of Musa Saidykhan in 2010; and the unlawful killing of the president of the Gambia Press Union Deyda Hydara, in 2014.

“Gambia’s catch-all laws on sedition and publication of false news are nothing but an instrument of censorship and should be repealed,” said CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney. “Media freedoms and freedom of expression more broadly have been systematically eroded through repressive legislation, intimidation and the imprisonment of independent journalists. Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay is a victim of this crackdown and must be released from prison immediately.”