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Gambian Opposition Leader Released From Prison

A leading opposition figure in Gambia has been released from prison after the government dropped charges including spying, illegal assembly and sedition.

Halifa Sallah's latest trouble began when he went to the village of Makumbaya to investigate reports that people were being abducted and made to drink hallucinogenic drugs in what the human rights group Amnesty International says is an orchestrated campaign by Gambian security forces.

"It had gone beyond politics. It was a sort of a supernatural cleansing of human beings. And I sat down and asked myself the question: Should a history be written that in the Gambia, at this particular moment, such a thing is taking place and no one says anything," Sallah said.

Sallah challenged President Yahya Jammeh in the 2006 election and is currently the minority leader in the national assembly. He held several press conferences on the abductions, which were also widely reported in Gambian newspapers.

But when security officials said there were no abductions, Sallah decided to record interviews with some of the witnesses and send an audio cassette to President Jammeh.

"By so doing, I expected that the state will see that, constitutionally, the liberties of these people were being violated, their right to privacy being violated, trespass in their homes," Sallah said.

Instead, Sallah was arrested on charges of obtaining "confidential information which could be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy." He was charged with holding an unlawful assembly "with intent to bring hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against the government."

Sallah was unable to meet bail conditions requiring that one of his three guarantors be a retired police officer who has attained the rank of inspector general. After nearly two weeks in jail and complaints by Amnesty International that he could be tortured while in custody, Sallah was released and all charges dropped.

"When they were withdrawing the charges, they said that they were doing so in the interest of peace and justice. Peace and justice must be premised on the fundamental rights of people being respected," Sallah said.

Amnesty International says nearly 1,000 Gambians have been locked up in secret detention centers. The human rights groups says at least two people have died after drinking a hallucinogenic liquid of poisonous herbs and many more have suffered serious kidney problems.

In an interview with VOA, Sallah said he will continue to pursue the issue even though the charges against him have been dropped.

"I intend to send these very charges back to the president with a letter to make inquiries where lies that government policy or law on the screening of witches," said Sallah.

President Jammeh has been in power since a 1994 coup against Gambia's founding father Dawda Jawara. Human rights groups and press freedom organizations say the Jammeh government has used arbitrary arrest to repress political dissent and stifle critical press coverage.