(Dakar) – The suspicious death in custody of opposition political leader Solo Sandeng and the arrest of his party leader, Ousainu Darboe, and other party members in recent days underscore the repressive nature of the Gambia’s government, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and ARTICLE 19 said today.
The groups said the government of President Yahya Jammeh should ensure an independent and impartial investigation into Sandeng’s death, immediately release all peaceful protesters and free Alhagie Ceesay, a journalist arbitrarily detained since July 2015 and currently gravely ill in hospital.
“Sandeng’s senseless death in custody appears to be the latest in a long line of abuses against the political opposition in Gambia,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This case heightens concerns that the Gambian government will intensify its crackdown on independent voices ahead of elections in December.”
Sandeng, a prominent leader from the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), was detained on April 14, 2016, during a peaceful demonstration in favor of electoral reform ahead of December’s presidential elections. Fatoumata Jawara, a youth leader from the UDP, is also detained and is believed to have suffered life-threatening injuries. A number of protesters arrested at the same time remain in custody. Members of Sandeng's party allege that he died after being tortured by Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency and that two other party members have also died in custody in recent days.
December’s presidential election will be the fifth since Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup in 1994. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to send observers to the last poll in 2011, citing intimidation of the opposition and the electorate. A broad range of opposition groups have long called for electoral reform, including an independent election commission and equal access to public media.
During the April 14 protest, a small group of demonstrators waved banners in Serekunda, a suburb of the capital Banjul, with slogans such as, “We need electoral reforms and freedom of speech.” Security forces broke up the protest and arrested many of the participants.
Members of the UDP party gathered again on April 16 to demand justice for Sandeng’s death and the release of other members of their party. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators and arrested at least five UDP executive members, including Darboe, as well as a number of other protesters and bystanders.
Ceesay, managing director of the independent radio station Teranga FM, was arrested on July 2, 2015, by the National Intelligence Agency after he privately shared by phone a picture in which a gun was pointed toward a photograph of Jammeh. The image had been circulating on the Internet, and Ceesay was not its author. Teranga FM has been closed down several times over the past years.
Despite his poor health – his readmission to a hospital on April 13 was his third visit in 2016 – Ceesay has been denied bail on at least four occasions. In March 2016, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released an opinion, adopted during its last session in December 2015, that Ceesay had been arbitrarily deprived of liberty. It called on Gambia to release Ceesay and drop all charges against him.
“The charges against Alhagie Ceesay are baseless, and he should never have been arrested in the first place,” said Fatou Jagne Senghor, regional director of ARTICLE 19. “Ceesay’s deteriorating health makes it all the more urgent to release him.”
Since Jammeh took power, he has routinely and ruthlessly repressed all forms of dissent in the country. State security forces and shadowy paramilitary groups have carried out unlawful killings and arbitrarily arrested, detained and forcibly disappeared people seen as a threat to the government, causing hundreds to flee the country of 1.8 million people.
Many Gambian human rights activists fear that the December elections will lead the government to again target political dissidents and the few independent journalists that remain.
“We are extremely worried by the sinister direction Gambia's government is heading in the run up to December's elections. It is crucial that Gambia upholds the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa. “Peaceful protesters must be immediately and unconditionally released and any who are injured should receive medical treatment without delay.”