Banjul, Gambia, April 16, 2016 (AFP) – A senior figure in Gambia’s main opposition has died in custody after leading a protest for electoral reform and the resignation of strongman President Yahya Jammeh, his party and a rights group said Saturday. Solo Sandeng, who had recently been promoted to organising secretary of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), died following his arrest and detention on Thursday by riot police, they said. “We have received some reports that Solo Sandeng died in detention. We understand he died shortly after his arrest for participating in what we’ve been told by eyewitnesses was a peaceful protest,” said Amnesty International west Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani.
The UDP confirmed his death to AFP on Saturday morning, while leader Ousainou Darboe later told a gathering of activists that two female protesters were also in a coma in detention following their arrest. The circumstances of Sandeng’s death were “as yet unknown”, Mahtani said, 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 immediately respond to a call for comment.
Gambian security forces beat dozens of UDP activists who had gathered just outside the capital of Banjul on Thursday to press for reform, before rounding them up and taking them to an unknown location. Sandeng was taken away separately from his colleagues. He had previously been detained by the authorities in 2013, according to Amnesty. President Jammeh was out of the country when the protest happened, attending a summit of leaders from the world’s Muslim countries in Istanbul.
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 was 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.
The protest came days after the UDP 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.
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