/ 2 May 2016

Deaths in detention heighten Gambians’ distress

President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia.
President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia.

Amid reports of deaths in detention of up to three opposition activists in the Gambia, international pressure is mounting on long-serving President Yahya Jammeh over his worsening human rights records.

More than a dozen activists were arrested on April?14 for organising a peaceful protest calling for electoral reforms before the presidential election to be held in December 2016. They are also calling for the resignation of Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994 and is running for his fifth term in office.

Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the youth president for the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), was among those arrested. Barely 24 hours later, Sandeng was reportedly in a coma and without medical attention. He died shortly afterwards in unknown circumstances.

Based on recent events, the opposition says the president wants to ensure the election results are predetermined. They cite the appointment of a politician close to the president as head of the electoral commission, who is responsible for organising the elections, and made the decision to increase by tenfold the fee for running as a candidate – it now costs 500 000 dalasis (about R170 000).

The opposition is calling for electoral law reform because the current legislation unfairly advantages Jammeh.

The Gambia is one of two countries in West Africa without presidential term limits. Last year, the Economic Community of West African States wanted to introduce two presidential term limits across the region. The Gambia and Togo forced the 15-member bloc to drop the idea. Jammeh said God sets term limits.

The UN voiced its concern over Sandeng’s death, saying: “The secretary general learned with dismay of the death in detention in Gambia of political activist and opposition UDP member Solo Sandeng and two fellow party members … The secretary general is deeply concerned about the apparent use of excessive force and the arrest and detention of peaceful demonstrators on April 14 2016.

“He calls on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested, including UDP leader Ousainou Darboe, and [to] uphold the rights of the Gambian people to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

Shortly after news of the death of Sandeng broke, Darboe led a protest demanding the body of his party member and the unconditional release of all other detainees. Darboe was arrested immediately and placed in detention along with three other executive members of the UDP.

He has since appeared in court alongside 40 other protesters. They face up to six charges of illegal protest, incitement of violence, unlawful assembly, holding a procession without a permit and riotously interfering with vehicles.

Although they all pleaded not guilty, they were denied bail. Witnesses say that up to four members of the opposition didn’t appear in court, raising fears about their fate.

Sabrina Mahtani, a researcher for Amnesty International West Africa, has called for an independent investigation into the matter, saying that the death in detention of Sandeng “must leave no space for impunity. The authorities must conduct an immediate, thorough and independent investigation”.

The Gambia’s government has defended the arrests and detentions of the protesters. Information Minister Sheriff Bojang told journalists the protesters were arrested as they had violated Gambian law.

“Mr Darboe is a veteran lawyer and he’s quite informed that in the Gambia, just like in every other country, there is something called the Public Order Act, which forbids processions, street protests, meetings and so forth without first seeking and being granted permission by the police.”

On Jammeh’s return from Istanbul, where he attended the 13th session of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, he reportedly dismissed the opposition protests as the “instigation of instability in African countries”, adding that the Gambia “will always be peaceful”.

The chairman of the national youth council, Ibrahim Ceesay, was fired after he shared a post on social media calling on all youth to join a peaceful protest against the activist’s death and the continued detention of other activists. The post has since disappeared.

Gibairu Janneh, a former secretary general of the Gambia Press Union, called on the information minister (Janneh’s former colleague) to intercede on behalf of the protesters.

“I hope the information minister, who in 2013 stood alongside my humble self to protest against the closure of his newspaper and for press freedom, would cordially inform the justice minister that such provisions exist in our Constitution,” he said.

“The information minister at that material time joined me and all other journalists in the street because he was affected by the closure of his newspaper, which was put under lock and key without due regard for the law.

“If he can come to the street to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with that government action, then it must be clear to him that these young protesters and the UDP members have equal rights to go on to the streets to demand electoral reform because it affects them. This is what democracy dictates.”

Calm has returned to the streets of Banjul but there is still a heavy security presence in the capital and activists say that, until their colleagues are released and their demands met, there will be more protests.

Jammeh is widely criticised for mistreatment of journalists and opposition members, as well as the gay and lesbian community. Gambians in Dakar, Senegal and the United States and their supporters have also being organising protests against the Jammeh regime, as demonstrated by posts on the #GambiaRising and #GambiansInAtlanta hashtags.

Pan-African institutions such as the Banjul-based African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Economic Community of West African States have added their voices.

In its 2014 submission to the Universal Periodic Review, Amnesty International said: “Since Gambia’s first Universal Periodic Review in 2010, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated. The government continues to stifle freedom of expression and commit other human rights violations with impunity.” – globalvoices.org