FILE - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh
FILE - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh

An Amnesty International official says members of the Gambian opposition arrested last month by President Yahya Jammeh’s government are prisoners of conscience and should be released because they were simply expressing their political opinion as guaranteed under the Gambian constitution.

This came after Gambian authorities over the weekend charged the 38 people arrested last month, including main opposition leader Ousaniou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP), with conspiracy to commit a felony.

They had previously been charged with unlawful assembly, rioting and incitement to violence after they held a protest demanding political reforms and against the death of UDP official Solo Sandeng in custody.

Amnesty calls for release of opposition members

Stephen Cockburn, deputy regional director for Amnesty International in West and Central Africa, also said the Gambian government would be wise to heed international calls for the release of the opposition members especially as Gambia is scheduled to have elections later this year.

“The Gambian constitution protects freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, including peaceful protest. And international law makes clear that there should be no criminalization of people who’ve been taking part in peaceful protest, even if there had not been authorization granted. And so for us, these are prisoners of conscience; these are people who have expressed their political opinion and they have been arrested and charged and they should be released,” he said.

Death of opposition official in custody         

Cockburn says the death in police custody of Solo Sandeng, also must be investigated. Sandeng, the UDP’s National Organizing Secretary, had allegedly been tortured to death while in police detention.

“Beyond that, there’s also very, very serious allegations made against the Gambian authorities in terms of the violence they used against the protesters and the violence they used once they were in prison. We know of one Solo Sandeng who died in custody, and there must be an investigation of his violation of human rights,” Cockburn said.

Gambia’s information minister Sheriff Bojan told VOA he knows nothing about anyone being killed in police custody. But he said opposition leader Darboe and his “cohorts” broke Gambian law by holding a demonstration without permission from the police. 

“Mr. Darboe is veteran lawyer and he’s quite informed that in Gambia just like in every other country there is something called the Public Order Act which forbids procession, street protests, meetings, and so forth without first seeking and being granted permission by the police. But he and his cohorts decided to completely flout that law, and in Gambia, just like in any other country, their acts and reactions; there are causes and effects.

President Jammeh, who seized power in 1984, is regularly accused of rights abuses and of running Gambia with an iron fist.

Amnesty accuses Jammeh government of rights abuses

Amnesty in its 2015 annual report accused Jammeh’s government of enforced disappearances, torture, ill-treatment, custodian deaths and a flawed criminal justice system. 

Cockburn said Amnesty has many questions about the fairness of any trial of the opposition members.

“I think there be a lot of questions raised about the fairness of any trial. There are a lot of problems in Gambia around politically motivated trials, about lawyers and families having access to people being charged and the use of torture in prison which of course can make people leap to confession they will tend to use. So I think we will have major questions about the fairness of any trial that is as politically sensitive as this one,” Cockburn said.

Case put off

The court adjourned the case against the 38 opposition members and leader Ousaniou Darboe until May 5 and did not rule on bail applications.

Lawyers for the detained opposition members have reportedly told the court that the opposition activists had been denied adequate food, access to medical attention and family visits.

New election

Gambians will go to the polls in December this year to elect a new president.

Cockburn said Amnesty International hopes that the Jammeh government will focus on the coming presidential election.

“I think what we very much hope is that the Gambian authorities will step back from the situation.  In a year that elections could be held in six or seven months or so, there needs to be national dialogue between the political parties, of trust and confidence, and an environment where people can express their views and assemble peacefully. And I think what would be important to try to build that confidence,  would be to release the protesters and launch an investigation into the death in custody of one of them,” Cockburn said. 

Cockburn said Amnesty has expressed its concerns to the Gambian government. He also said the United Nations, African Union, Economic Community of West African States, and the European Union, have all called for the release of the opposition members and an investigation into the death of Solo Sandeng.