Unprecedented Protests Hit One Of The World’s Most Repressive Countries (Huffington Post - May 13)

Protests Are Met With Brutal Beatings

The first major demonstration took place on April 14, when members of the opposition United Democratic Party marched through the streets in the capital of Banjul demanding election reforms. Gambia is set to hold an election this December, although due to political repression, voting conditions in the country are far from fair. The European Union and the Economic Community of West African States refused to even send election observers to the last election in 2011 as a form of boycott. 

Security forces violently clamped down on the April 14 UDP rally and imprisoned around 38 of the demonstrators, according to Amnesty International. Protesters allege they were abused while in custody, with an alleged affidavit from one woman stating authorities took her into a room, where three men beat her “like an animal.” 

“The reason they were beaten is because Jammeh likes sending messages,” Fatu Camara, the president’s former press secretary, told The WorldPost. “What Jammeh doesn’t like is a crowd.”

Camara fled Gambia in 2013 after being charged with sedition, and now operates an independent radio show and news network covering the country’s politics. She is part of a sizable Gambian diaspora that tries to counter the country’s state-controlled media.

Protesters are seen marching on April 16 in Banjul. Gambia has seen rare demonstrations over electoral reforms and the imprisonment of opposition members.

Rights groups and activists also believe that during the April 14 arrests, prominent UDP member Solo Sandeng died in police custody after his arrest. While the arrests may have been intended to have a chilling effect, Sandeng’s death and the imprisonment of top UDP officials caused outrage.

On April 16, dozens of opposition members returned to the streets to demand the release of prisoners and to protest Sandeng’s death. At least five prominent UDP demonstrators and a number of others were detained at the gathering, and many remain in custody. Nevertheless, rights groups say small demonstrations have continued since these mass arrests.

Protesters in #Gambia calling on The Gov't to produce Solo Sandeng 'dead or alive' after he went missing upon arrest

Arrests And Brutality Put An International Spotlight On Gambia

Since Sandeng’s death and the arrests that followed, a number of international organizations and activists have condemned the Gambian government’s actions. On Wednesday, the European Parliament issued a statement expressing serious concern and deploring the attacks on peaceful protesters. The United States alsocondemned the arrests last month, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed his dismay.

Even though Gambia is a highly repressive state, rights groups say the recent detentions of opposition members have drawn special attention because of the brazen way they were carried out and their proximity to the country’s elections. 

“It’s relatively rare that you get so many people arrested in one go, and so much violence being openly used,” Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for West and Central Africa, told The WorldPost.

“The predominant behavior you get in Gambia — because of the amount of repression — is a kind of self-censorship, in the sense that people do not take to the streets and speak out because they fear what will happen to them.”

Gambia’s unexpected protests and the government’s draconian reaction is now bringing an increased amount of attention toward the human rights abuses in the country, a focus that observers hope will continue as the country approaches elections later this year.

“When there’s a spotlight on Gambia, there’s much greater restraint shown in terms of violating rights or repressing freedoms,” Cockburn said. “When that’s turned away there’s a free rein to get away with those things.”