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Gambians wait in line to vote during the presidential election in Banjul, Gambia, December 1, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

(Nairobi) – Gambian authorities should respect the rights of Gambians to peacefully express their views on the outcome of the December 1, 2016 presidential election. Prior to the vote, incumbent President Yahya Jammeh warned that protests against the election would not be permitted and the government blocked internet communications and international calls.

Although the two-week election campaign was peaceful, and included many large opposition and government rallies, President Jammeh responded to a November 29 media query about possible protests following the elections, saying, “In this country we don’t allow demonstrations.” At about 8 p.m. on November 30, the government blocked all internet services in Gambia as well as incoming and outgoing international calls. Online messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Viber, have been blocked for several weeks.

“The rights of Gambians from across the political spectrum should be respected regardless of the election outcome,” said Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The government must publicly endorse the right to peaceful assembly and end the telecommunications ban.”

The election is the fifth time that Jammeh has sought a new five-year term since coming to power in a 1994 coup. Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the fairness of the election in a November 2 report, describing how Jammeh secured a political advantage through a crackdown on the opposition, domination of state media, and the use of state resources for campaigning.

Jammeh faced two challengers for president: Adama Barrow, the representative of a coalition of eight opposition parties, and Mama Kandeh, of the opposition party Gambian Democratic Congress. Election results are expected to be announced in the evening of December 1 or on December 2. The candidate who won the most votes will be the winner, with no second-round voting.

Jammeh’s threat to prohibit demonstrations heightens the risk of arbitrary arrests and other serious human rights abuses, particularly after the election results are announced. In April and May, Gambian security forces arbitrarily arrested more than 90 opposition activists for participating in peaceful protests, with dozens beaten at the time of arrest or while in detention. 30 protesters were later sentenced to three-year prison terms. Two opposition activists have died in custody, at least one as a result of torture by security forces.

The government’s clampdown on the internet and international phone calls will harm Gambians’ abilities to share information with media organizations and nongovernmental groups outside the country, including reports of human rights violations. The Gambian government has a long track record of intimidating journalists, which has made news and nongovernmental organizations outside the country a vital source of information.

On November 4, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which has its headquarters in Banjul, called on the Gambian government to ensure that elections are free, fair, and peaceful, refrain from the use of excessive and disproportionate force against protesters, and immediately lift all restrictions to internet and social media networks.

The Gambian government should immediately end all blocks on the internet and telephone communications. As the election results are announced, Gambian police should whenever possible allow peaceful demonstrations to occur, even if they are unplanned or spontaneous.

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duties, should as far as possible use non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. If it is absolutely necessary to disperse demonstrators because of an imminent threat to public order, the security forces should use the minimum force necessary in accordance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

“The government’s communications cutoff and threatened protest ban are only likely to increase tensions between the government and opposition groups,” Olugboji said. “Gambians’ rights to express their political opinions free from government interference do not end once the election is over.”

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