On July 20, 2016, a Gambian High Court sentenced the leader of the main United Democratic Party (UDP) (currently in opposition), Ousainou Darboe, and 18 other opposition activists to three years in prison for — among other charges — participating in a demonstration without a licence. They were arrested on April 19 in the capital, Banjul.
The opposition has denounced the trial, while human rights organisation Amnesty International has noted that these prison sentences for opposition leaders continue the downward spiral for human rights in The Gambia.
Among those convicted is Fanta Darboe Jawara — a naturalised US citizen who, while visiting the country, took part in the protest led by her uncle. The ruling is attracting attention in the United States, where four Maryland congressional members have expressed outrage over her conviction.
In April 2016, the country witnessed a series of unprecendented protests that started with a peaceful demonstration calling for electoral reforms to take place prior to the country's upcoming December 2016 election. The demonstration was led by Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the youth head of the main opposition party, UDP. Many opposition politicians believe that the existing electoral laws favour the incumbent president Yahya Jammeh, and would like to see them changed. As things stand, it is difficult to challenge him — individuals require as much as 500,000 Gambian Dalasi (about US$11,280) to register a political party or run as a presidential candidate in The Gambia.
By the end of the protest, security forces rounded up and detained Sandeng and other UDP supporters. Sandeng and two other UDP members died in police custody within 48 hours of their arrests. This led to new demonstrations, led by Darboe, who demanded the release of the remaining protesters.
The United States, the United Nations and other international organisations have repeatedly called on the government to respect the rights of citizens to peaceful protest. President Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994, is widely criticised for mistreatment of journalists, opposition members and members of the LGBT community.
In its 2014 submission to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Gambia, Amnesty International noted: “Since Gambia’s first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2010, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated. The government continues to stifle freedom of expression and commit other human rights violations with impunity.”
Both Gambians and netizens outside of the country have taken to Facebook and Twitter to condemn the conviction.
Calling for international organisations to intervene, the Media Foundation of West Africa shared an infographic showing abuses committed by Jammeh's government over the years:
— Media Foundation-WA (@TheMFWA) July 22, 2016
Niamina Nko also called for the international community to take action:
— Freedom 4 all (@NiaminaNko) July 21, 2016
Oumie Andrews made reference to the fact that the hearing was made before non-Gambian judges:
— Oumie Andrews (@OumieAndrews) July 21, 2016
Jammeh's government has a policy of hiring Nigerian judges and magistrates; Gambians in the United Kingdom made their views known about the practice:
— Sanna Camara (@maimuhyai) July 22, 2016
A user using the handle ‘YesWe Can’ lamented:
— YesWe Can (@YesWeCan_Gambia) July 20, 2016
An online Gambian newspaper seemed to suggest that the judges who presided over the trial were more concerned with money than anything else:
— Gainako Editor (@dbaldeh) July 21, 2016
The AU does not condemn a Dictator when he is oppressing his people but it will condemn when the Dictator is overthrown.
Commenters from other African countries also weighed in on the situation. Adomati Robert from Uganda pointed out that in African countries in general — not only in The Gambia — opposition parties are not treated fairly:
I'm a Ugandan but I see no difference in political crisis with that of Gambia and other politically oppressed African nations where opposition parties are seen as a threat to the political security of the ruling government. This is a way of defending selfish interests of the greedy leaders. When the rich robs the poor, it's called ‘defense’ and when the poor fights back it's called ‘offense’.
A commenter from Zambia, Eugine Mwambila, said the same treatment of opposition politicians is happening in his country:
african leaders dont want to be opposed,our african democracy is a sham,Uganda,Egypt,Zimbabwe,Angola and the same is happening in my country Zambila the opposition is being threatened with jail terms,there is need for Amnesty and other international Ngo z (sic) to help this man,
However, Cheikh Bamba came out in defence of President Jammeh, referring to him — with tongue firmly in cheek — as “this dictator”:
This so-called opposition called UDP is a group of disgruntled figures with ties to the former super corrupt regime and hardcore tribalists
This dictator out perform the previous 30 years corrupt government and the colonial system combined
The real farce is the daily fabricated stories regarding the Gambian situation