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New Gambia President Vows to Release Political Prisoners


Gambians celebrate the victory of opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow against longtime President Yahya Jammeh in the streets of Serrekunda, Gambia, Dec. 2, 2016.

On Monday, an appeals court in Gambia ordered the release on bail of top opposition politician Ousainou Darboe and 18 other protesters who had been arrested in April under outgoing President Yahya Jammeh.

President-elect Adama Barrow has vowed to release more prisoners since winning the election last week.

"Political prisoners will be released, all of them. If it's politics, you are released," he told the Associated Press.

In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International welcomed the move as a positive step. But it warned against "forgetting other prisoners of conscience who still languish in jail simply for having expressed their opinion or participated in peaceful protests."

FILE - Adama Barrow, the flag-bearer of the coalition of the seven opposition political parties in Gambia, greets supporters during a gathering in the Buffer Zone district of Talinding, Nov. 29, 2016.

FILE - Adama Barrow, the flag-bearer of the coalition of the seven opposition political parties in Gambia, greets supporters during a gathering in the Buffer Zone district of Talinding, Nov. 29, 2016.

The newly elected president also announced that Gambia will not withdraw from the International Criminal Court, which is contrary to what his predecessor had wanted.

Christopher Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute spoke to VOA by phone from Accra, Ghana, where he is preparing for presidential elections there this week.

"In the past two decades we've seen many violations of human rights — many lawyers, journalists and human rights activists imprisoned. So it comes as a relief that someone who said he would never relinquish power has accepted the verdict of the polls," Fomunyoh said.

'Autocratic leader'

"I wish you all the best, the country will be in your hands in January," outgoing leader Jammeh told his opponent in a congratulatory phone call after the vote.

FILE - Gambia's then-President Yahya Jammeh smiles during a rally in Banjul, Gambia, Nov. 29, 2016.

FILE - Gambia's then-President Yahya Jammeh smiles during a rally in Banjul, Gambia, Nov. 29, 2016.

Jammeh, 51, has ruled the small West African nation since taking power from Dawda Kairaba Jawara in a military coup in 1994.

"The early ‘90s, the Gambia was one of only four African nations — the other three being Senegal, Botswana and Mauritius. These were the only four countries that even accepted political pluralism,” Fomunyoh said. “It came as a shock when Yahya Jammeh staged a coup in 1994 and took the reins of government. Very quickly, he moved from being a benign soldier to a very autocratic leader."

Jammeh lost last week’s election to a coalition of opposition parties led by Barrow, who rejoiced with supporters. "Everybody thought that it's impossible, but the impossible becomes possible," he said.

In light of Jammeh's concession, the United Nations special representative in West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, urged Gambia to avoid "any atmosphere of witch hunt and retribution," asking the country "to forge ahead in unity, conciliation, peace and harmony for the development of your great country known as the smiling coast of Africa."

Celebration

But celebrations of Jammeh's defeat continue throughout the country and elsewhere, with most Gambians saying they are jubilant.

"Gambia, we are suffering for 22 years. This guy didn't do nothing for us," said Sulyman Sawaneh, an ecstatic and unemployed 19-year-old.

FILE - Gambians celebrate the victory of opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow against longtime President Yahya Jammeh in the streets of Serrekunda, Gambia, Dec. 2, 2016.

FILE - Gambians celebrate the victory of opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow against longtime President Yahya Jammeh in the streets of Serrekunda, Gambia, Dec. 2, 2016.

Amie Touray, a 22-year-old student, says she finally feels some freedom. "Today … we can say anything we want without any soldier or any police harassing us."

For Buba Fatty, a 32-year-old medical worker, this was a dream come true. "I'm one of the happiest guys today throughout the whole world because this is what I've been looking for for so many years."

Ousainou Mbenga, the chairman of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists based in the U.S., says he and his friends couldn't be happier that the Jammeh regime is over.

"A brutal regime, a tyrannical regime, very selfish. Jammeh has really pushed Gambian progress [back] another 50 years," he told VOA.

Mbenga says this is a new era in the history of the Gambia, adding that people should start working on building strong institutions to prevent someone like Jammeh from ever ruling his beautiful country again.

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office. 

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