Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the National Organizing Secretary of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) died in custody after being arrested on Thursday. Another UDP activist, Fatoumata Jawara, was arrested alongside Mr. Sandeng and is reportedly severely injured. The two were leading peaceful protests urging electoral reform.
On Saturday, UDP leader Ousainu Darboe and other party officials held a press conference and led 150 Gambians in a protest march demanding the release of Mr. Sandeng and other arrested protestors. The activists were subsequently surrounded by security officers, who fired tear gas upon the crowd. Eyewitnesses reported that the soldiers also beat protestors with rubber batons and the ends of their guns.
Foreign governments, the United Nations, and civil society organizations have strongly condemned the unlawful arrest and detention of opposition activists.
Amnesty International has called upon the Gambian authorities to immediately begin investigating the death of Mr. Sandeng and to release all political prisoners.
“The tragic death in detention of Solo Sandeng must leave no space for impunity. The authorities must conduct an immediate, thorough and independent investigation,” said Sabrina Mahtani, the West Africa researcher for Amnesty International.
However, the international community’s statements of condemnation are not likely to yield results.
“While the swift condemnations from the U.S., E.U. and U.N. were certainly welcome and, to an extent, help place the country in the international spotlight, mere rhetoric is no longer enough,” said Jeff Smith, an international human rights consultant working with Gambian activists.
“Withholding aid, as the E.U. did, or removing Gambia from a trade preference program, as the U.S. has done, is clearly not effective and isn't enough. It's time to hit Jammeh and his coterie where it hurts the most. To that end, this would entail asset freezes, visa bans and travel restrictions as a first and necessary step.”
Meanwhile, the Gambian government has defended the arrest of opposition leaders.
According to Sheriff Bojan, the Gambia’s information minister, “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 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 The Gambia, just like in any other country, there are acts and reactions; there are causes and effects.”
However, UDP spokesman Pa Samba Jow asserted that The Gambia’s constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest.
“Section 25, subsection 1-D of The Gambian constitution gives every Gambian the right to peacefully protest. So, it is absolutely incorrect to suggest that one needs a permit to protest.”
He added that the government and its security forces violated the constitution by suppressing Gambians’ right to protest.
While Gambians are granted the right to protest in the constitution, this right is rarely exercised for fear of government repression, according to Fatou Camara, a Gambian radio host in exile in the U.S.
"People in the government and civil service are scared about what may happen to them if they begin opposing Jammeh. In the beginning, protestors were simply calling for electoral reforms, but after the violence, people just want him to go,” she said.
Mr. Smith added, “The public protests we have witnessed over the course of the past five days are unprecedented in Gambian history. What we are indeed seeing is the biggest and most sustained show of defiance against the Jammeh regime to date,”
“This is no small feat, and the amount of courage displayed by ordinary Gambians cannot be overstated given authorities' track record of using live ammunition and killing demonstrators in broad daylight,” he concluded.