The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, has demanded an urgent investigation from the Gambian authorities after a leading opposition activist was arrested – with Amnesty International reporting he has already died in police custody.
Solo Sandeng, the national organising secretary of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) was arrested last Thursday (14 April) along with other demonstrators at a peaceful protest calling for electoral reform in the small West African country.
Gambia’s repressive treatment of the media has led to a climate of intimidation under President Yahya Jammeh, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ahead of elections scheduled for December.
A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has found evidence of significant human rights violations in Gambia, placing pressure on European governments as they consider whether to press ahead with a major aid package.
A spokeswoman for Mogherini said, “Recent peaceful protests have led to a disproportionate reaction by the Gambian security forces.
“The EU is particularly concerned about the fate of Mr Solo Sandeng and other opposition politicians who took part in the protest, as well as on reports on ill-treatment of persons taken into custody.
“Gambia has taken on commitments under international conventions and the Cotonou agreement.
“The EU expects the universal rights of free expression, of peaceful protest and of physical integrity to be respected.
“We expect that a thorough investigation, establishing the precise facts and responsibilities should be conducted.”
According to Amnesty, Sandeng has already died following his arrest, although it says the “circumstances are as yet unknown.”
“Another UDP member, Fatoumata Jawara, is also detained and is believed to be suffering from serious injuries. The cause of her injuries is unclear but Amnesty International is deeply concerned for her welfare,” the London-based NGO said.
“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, Amnesty International West Africa researcher.
The European Union has withdrawn millions of euros of funding from Gambia due to its poor human rights record, according to an EU spokesman, at a time when the mainly Muslim West African nation is looking more to the Middle East for support.
“Gambia must uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, especially in advance of the elections. All of the peaceful protestors arrested by the authorities should be immediately and unconditionally released. Any who are injured must receive urgent medical treatment.”
The protest in the Serrekunda area of Banjul, the capital, was peaceful, according to witnesses, but was broken up by police, who made several arrests, including UDP members Fatoumata Jawara (Female Youth President), Fatou Camara, (Constituency Women’s Leader), Nokoi Njie (2nd Vice President of the Women’s Wing) and Lang Marong (Deputy Campaign Manager).
They were taken to Mile 2 Prison and later to the National Intelligence Agency for interrogation, Amnesty said.
Sandeng had previously been arrested in 2013 for political activities.
Amnesty, along with Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, are also calling for the immediate freeing of a journalist held for nine months.
Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay, the managing director of the independent radio station Teranga FM, has been charged with sedition and “publication of false news.” He has been hospitalised twice since the beginning of 2016.
“The use of archaic sedition laws to harass and lock up critics is a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.
“Alagie Ceesay’s case is a further example of Gambia’s blatant disregard for freedom of the press, and he should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Ceesay was arrested on 2 July by the National Intelligence Agency after he privately shared by phone a picture in which a gun was pointed toward a photograph of President Jammeh. The image had been circulating on the internet, and Ceesay was not its author. His radio station, Teranga FM, had been closed down several times.
Gambia should amend several draconian laws that give authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain critics and violate international and regional standards on the right to freedom of expression, the organizations said. These include the law on seditious publication, the Information and Communication (Amendment) Act 2013 and the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2013.
In April 2015, Gambia rejected 78 of the 171 recommendations at the universal periodic review of human rights conditions in the country by the United Nations. The recommendations it rejected included removing restrictions on freedom of expression.
Gambia has not implemented the judgments of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice in three cases related to journalists: the enforced disappearance of Ebrima Manneh in 2010; the torture of Musa Saidykhan in 2010; and the unlawful killing of the president of the Gambia Press Union Deyda Hydara,in 2014.
Jammeh won power in a military coup in 1994, and has since survived several coup attempts himself, and has since won power in four elections, under disputed circumstances.