Gambia court orders release of opposition leader, 18 others

December 5th, 2016 12:48 pm

BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — An appeals court in Gambia ordered the release of a top opposition politician and 18 other protesters on bail Monday, just days after strongman ruler Yahya Jammeh agreed to step aside after losing the presidential election.

The ruling prompted people in the courtroom to stand and sing the national anthem.

Ousainou Darboe, the head of the United Democratic Party, and the 18 others had been arrested in April after they took part in a peaceful demonstration. They had been sentenced to three years in prison after they marched for electoral reform and to protest the death of a party member, demanding the member's body.

Darboe is also a mentor to 51-year-old Adama Barrow, the man who defeated Jammeh in Thursday's vote. Barrow has vowed to free all political prisoners and has urged exiles who fled Jammeh's 22-year reign to return and help him reform this tiny West African country.

"It's a great day! It's a new Gambia. It is clear to Jammeh today that the power belongs to the people," said Darboe's wife, Mymuna, who was going to cook his favorite dish of rice and fish known as benechin. "It's going to be celebration, celebration, celebration!"

Darboe and the other defendants were due to be released on bail in the coming hours or days, though they must turn over their passports. Hundreds lined up for miles along the road that leads from the prison, awaiting their release.

"The release of Ousainou Darboe and other peaceful protesters on bail is a big moment for them and their families, yet we still await their full and final acquittal," said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa researcher, who was present at court.

"We must also not forget others prisoners of conscience who still languish in jail simply for having expressed their opinion or participated in peaceful protests," said Mahtani.

Eleven people are still facing trial in connection with the demonstrations earlier this year. It is unknown whether those cases will proceed now that Jammeh has indicated he will cede power in January.

Human rights groups say Jammeh's regime has long imprisoned and often killed political opponents in an effort to maintain his grip on power.

Ousainou said he has not been mistreated in prison, where he has been since last month, and his thinning frame is because of meditation.

As for Jammeh's reaction to the release, "I know he cannot take pride in it, because I know, lawyers know, not only in this country but throughout the world, it was not against the law," Ousainou said of the demonstrations.