Gambia: Prison sentences for opposition leaders continues downward spiral for human rights

The conviction of opposition leader Ousainou Darboe and 18 other peaceful protestors highlights the continuing downward spiral for human rights in Gambia, Amnesty International said today.

Following a court decision this afternoon, 19 people including the leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) have been sentenced to three years imprisonment. They were found guilty on six counts relating to participating in unauthorised protests on 16 April 2016 in the outskirts of the capital Banjul. They were found not guilty of incitement to violence, while one man was found not guilty on all counts.

“The sentencing of senior opposition figures such as Ousainou Darboe is the latest in a continuous chain of violations committed against those who dare to speak out in Gambia,” said Stephen Cockburn, Deputy Regional Director for Amnesty International in West and Central Africa.

“Amnesty International considers all those who continue to languish in jail for protesting peacefully to be prisoners of conscience, who should be immediately and unconditionally released.”

The 19 people convicted were arrested on 16 April during a peaceful protest that was calling for the release of dozens of UDP supporters who had been arrested during demonstrations just two days earlier. They were also demanding an investigation into the death in custody of UDP National Organising Secretary Solo Sandeng, arrested on 14 April. One witness described in a court affidavit how she had seen the beaten body of Solo Sandeng at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters, swollen and bleeding.

The verdict comes two days before the 22nd anniversary of the coup d’état that brought President Yaya Jammeh to power, and less than five months before Presidential elections are due to be held in Gambia.  

In June 2016, Amnesty International launched a report detailing the further decline in freedom of expression and in respect for human rights since the last elections in 2011, including repressive new laws, arrests of journalists and opposition members, and widespread surveillance. The organisation called on ECOWAS to consider suspending Gambia if progress was not made in improving the human rights situation before upcoming elections.

During a summit in June, ECOWAS Heads of State called on Gambia to refrain from using excessive force against protestors and to launch a political dialogue with opposition parties.
More than 25 others remain in detention awaiting trial for their parts in protests in April and May.  

“Imprisoning opposition leaders and their supporters for protesting peacefully not only fragrantly violates their human rights but is also likely to enflame an already tense situation,” said Stephen Cockburn.

“With just five months before elections are due to be held, the Gambian authorities should take urgent measures to ensure that people can express themselves without fear of reprisals. If they do not, ECOWAS and the international community should not stand idly by.”

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