Gambia: Pre-electoral climate darkens as opposition leaders are jailed

ARTICLE 19 is gravely concerned by the ongoing attacks on civic space, the imprisonment of opposition leader, Ousainou Darboe, two of his family members, and 25 opposition party supporters, and by allegations of torture and violence ahead of presidential elections.

On 14 April 2016, protests demanding fair electoral reforms, led by Ebrima Solo Sandeng, then National Secretary of the United Democratic Party (UDP), were violently repressed. It has been reported that Sandeng died as a result of torture he suffered during detention, dozens of people were arrested, and women were beaten, abused, and threatened by security forces.

Ousainu Darboe and dozens of other members and supporters of the UDP who subsequently protested on 16 April to demand justice after Sandeng’s death in custody, were later arrested and sentenced to prison under charges of unlawful assembly among other.

“The imprisonment of Ousainou Darboe and UDP members is a serious and deliberate violation of the right to protest and to freely participate to the electoral process,” said Fatou Jagne Senghor, Director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa.

“This sentence suggests that any hope of having a free, inclusive, and peaceful presidential election is misplaced. The detention and imprisonment of opposition party members is a crackdown on free expression and even further limits the space for dissent in a country which has silenced so many voices these past 22 years,” added Jagne Senghor.

The trials in the capital, Banjul, and in Mansakonko located (around 113 miles/182km from the capital)have been marked by serious and gross violations of the rights of the accused persons and total disregard of constitutional and international obligations of Gambia.

The many irregularities led the defence lawyers to walk out of the trials on 8 June. However, despite this, the courts sentenced Ousainou Darboe and 25 other members and supporters of the UDP, as well as two of Darboe’s family who were not involved in protests, to three years imprisonment on 20 July and 21 July.

A third group of about 17 people, who attended the court hearing to support those accused were arrested on 9 May under various charges and it is expected that they will also be sentenced to imprisonment soon.

« Ousainou Darboe, and all those detained as a result of protesting for electoral reforms and the death of Ebrima Solo Sandberg, should be immediately and unconditionally released. We are gravely concerned that in the case of Sandeng, the police and judiciary did not investigate the events that led to his death, despite information at their disposal on the allegations of torture”, stated Jagne Senghor

International Standards

Protest enables all people to individually and collectively express dissent and seek to influence or strengthen political decision-making processes. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The exercise of this right can only be restricted by law when “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of therights and freedoms of others.” This right is also guaranteed by Article 11 of the African Charter of human and people’s rights.

ARTICLE 19 believes that governments have the positive obligation to guarantee people their rights to protest. This obligation includes the setting up of mechanisms allowing all individuals suffering from discrimination and violence to have access to redress and protection including judicial assistance. However, the Gambian justice system tends to target protesters instead of protecting them, despite the violence inflicted and crimes committed by the security forces against those in detention.

Background Notes

  • On 20 July 2015, President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, promulgated without a political dialogue a law amending the electoral code increasing the deposit from 10,000 Dalasis (approx. $230USD)to 500,000 Dalasis (approx. $11,500US Dalasis)and restricting the conditions of participation for candidates in the elections. This reform has created a climate of tension ahead of the presidential election.
  • The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations, other institutions and governments have condemned the repression against peaceful protesters and called for an independent investigation into the death of Ebrima Solo Sandeng. The President rejected these calls to investigate Ebrima Solo Sandeng’s death.