Gambia opposition leader, protesters charged
22 April 2016, 08:17
Banjul - A Gambian court has charged opposition activists with rioting, illegal protest and incitement to violence for organising a demonstration over the death in detention of a party member last week.
Eighteen activists including United Democratic Party (UDP) leader Ousainou Darboe were charged with six different offences on Wednesday and will be kept in custody until their bail hearing due next week at Banjul's High Court.
The defendants were arrested on Saturday after around 150 supporters held a peaceful march to call for justice in the case of UDP organising secretary Solo Sandeng, who died in custody after leading an earlier protest.
Sandeng and dozens of others made a public call for electoral reform, with some protesters demanding the resignation of strongman President Yahya Jammeh, according to witnesses.
The UDP members pleaded not guilty to various charges including unlawful assembly, rioting, "riotously interfering with vehicles", incitement to violence, holding a procession without a permit and disobeying an order to disperse from an unlawful procession.
Gambian security forces armed with assault rifles fired tear gas during Saturday's protest, according to eyewitnesses.
Two women arrested on Thursday with Sandeng and believed to be suffering serious injuries, Nogoi Njie and Fatoumata Jawara, failed to appear in court, with all three absent from the charge sheet.
No other mention made of their names, or of several others arrested.
"In view of Solo Sandeng's death in custody, the government's failure to produce these individuals raises real concern about their fate," said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The Gambian government should release them immediately or explain publicly what has happened to them."
The United Nations has called on authorities in the west African country to conduct a "prompt, thorough and independent investigation" into the circumstances of what they said were the three activists' deaths in custody.
The only official response has come from the Gambia's Information Minister Sherrif Bojang, who told AFP he was unaware if detained opposition protesters had died in custody or where others were being detained, while asserting the two rare demonstrations they held were illegal.
Defence lawyer Antouman Gaye told the presiding judge he wished to apply for bail, adding some defendants required medical treatment.
"Six of these accused persons are in solitary confinement at Mile 2 Prison. It shows the urgency of hearing oral application for bail. Besides, all the six counts are bailable offences and some of them need medical attention," Gaye said.
Pansy Thlaku, chair of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, said on Wednesday the regional body had requested access to those in detention.