Protests in Gambia
People demonstrating in Banjul on 16 April 2016 following the death of an opposition figure Stringer/AFP/Getty

A Gambian opposition leader and another 18 people have been sentenced to three years in jail after being arrested for taking part in a pro-democracy protest in April that the government deemed as illegal. Ousainou Darboe, leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the other defendants were found guilty of participating in the unauthorised protest which occurred near the capital Banjul.

Protesters had taken to the streets to call for electoral reforms and the resignation of Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994. Authorities claimed the protest was illegal as demonstrators had failed to obtain permission from the police.

Reasons behind Gambia protests

In power since 1994, President Yahya Jammeh has been accused of undermining an effective opposition by raising the costs to register a political party.

Under the new law, anyone who wants to register a political party or run as presidential candidate has to pay 500,000 dalasis (£8,240, $11,870). Critics argue it undermines pluralism in the economically-stagnant country, where nearly 50% of the population still live in poverty.

The government said the law was necessary to ensure parties were properly organised. However, protesters are calling for electoral changes and the stepping down of Jammeh.

More on protests in Gambia here.

At least 50 people were arrested among fears that Solo Sandeng, UDP secretary, died alongside two others while being held in detention.

The defendants were denied bail after being charged, among other things, with conspiracy to commit a felony. They had previously been charged with assembling unlawfully, as well as rioting, inciting violence and interfering with vehicles. They all pleaded not guilty.

The sentence has been met with outrage, with rights group claiming the verdict undermines freedom of speech in the country, where protests are rare.

"The court ruling reinforces what many people, especially Gambians themselves, have long known: that Gambia's judicial system is merely another tool with which the Jammeh regime uses to cement his dictatorship by preventing any semblance of dissent, criticism, or potential opposition to his abusive rule," Jeffrey Smith, an international human-rights consultant who has worked with Gambian activists, told IBTimes UK.

"With elections less than five months away, it is time for international actors and donors to Gambia to act. It's long past due for targeted sanctions on Jammeh and his inner circle, including travel bans, visa restrictions and asset freezes," he continued.

"That Jammeh is allowed to continue to run roughshod over basic democratic principles, torture and imprison his opponents, and decimate both the media and civil society, is unacceptable."

Government's position

In a public address to the nation on 18 May 2016, Jammeh defined members of the Gambian opposition as "opportunistic people supported by the West". He added: "I will bow to only Allah and my mother. I will never tolerate opposition to destabilise this country."

Earlier in May, Samsudeen Sarr, Gambia's deputy ambassador to the UN – based in New York – was recorded while saying he would open fire on protesters in Banjul. "If I were there, and I was in charge, I would open fire on anybody," the diplomat said. The clip surfaced on 9 May, hours after activists and the opposition claimed security forces attacked people who had gathered outside the High Court in Banjul, as Darboe had appeared for a court ruling.

Sarr accused the person who secretly recorded him of doctoring the audio, releasing just a few seconds of a two-hour-long conversation. He also claimed people behind the protests were "anti-Gambia government dissidents" in the US and Europe who aimed to overthrow the government which, he said, had been overwhelmingly voted into office. He also rejected allegations that Sandeng died in custody.