The leader of the Gambia’s main political opposition was arrested Saturday following a second round of demonstrations in the country, with supporters demanding answers over the death in custody of a senior party figure.
United Democratic Party (UDP) chief Ousainou Darboe, a human rights lawyer, was hauled away by police with three other party leaders after beginning a protest march from his residence just outside the capital of Banjul.
Gambian security forces armed with assault rifles fired tear gas at the protesters, according to eyewitnesses.
“Ousainou Darboe and other senior executive members were arrested by the security agents who dispersed the crowd after firing tear gas on them,” witness Modou Ceesay told AFP. “Several people were beaten,” he added.
Around 150 supporters had joined Darboe to call for justice in the case of UDP organising secretary Solo Sandeng, who died in custody on Thursday, according to his party and the Amnesty International rights group.
Sandeng had led a protest which ended with Gambian security forces beating and arresting dozens for making a public call for electoral reform and the resignation of strongman President Yahya Jammeh.
The opposition leader gave a defiant speech at a press conference prior to his arrest calling for the release of his detained colleagues and the return of Sandeng’s body.
“These people have done nothing wrong. They have exercised their constitutional right and that constitutional right we are now going to exercise,” Darboe said.
“We are going out there to ask for Solo’s body to be given to us. We are going to ask for Madam Fatoumata Jawara and the rest to be released.”
Jawara is president of the UDP youth wing and one of two women believed to be in a coma in detention.
“We are not going to allow anyone to trample on our rights on the pretext you want to maintain security and stability in this country,” Darboe told journalists.
– ‘Another crackdown’ expected –
Amnesty International west Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani told AFP that Sandang had “died shortly after his arrest for participating in what we’ve been told by eyewitnesses was a peaceful protest.”
The circumstances of Sandeng’s death were “as yet unknown”, Mahtani added, calling on the authorities to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation and to release any other UDP members still being held.
Gambia’s information minister did not respond to a call for comment.
President Jammeh was out of the country when both protests took place, but was expected to address the nation upon his return, expected later on Saturday.
A military officer and former wrestler, he has ruled the tiny west African country with an iron fist since he seized power in a coup in 1994, and is regularly accused of sanctioning a catalogue of human rights abuses.
Amnesty’s Mahtani said further repressive measures against opposition activity were likely in the run-up to a presidential election in December widely expected to return Jammeh to power for a fifth term.
“We are concerned with the election period coming up that there will be a further crackdown on fundamental human rights,” she said.
A US State department report released this week accused the Gambia of torture, arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance of citizens, as well as routine harassment of critics.
The UDP has recently filed a lawsuit against the state for keeping the chairman of the electoral commission in power long after his mandate expired, alleging he was also a Jammeh ally in a supposedly neutral position.
The Independent Electoral Commission last year submitted a bill to parliament, later enacted into law, which opposition parties viewed as placing harsh restrictions on their ability to field candidates in elections.