Gambia protests
A protest against the death of Gambia's opposition figure, Solo Sandeng, is held in Banjul on 16 April. Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

Gambian activists have slammed claims by an official that protests which occurred in The Gambia earlier in April were violent and aimed at overthrowing President Yahya Jammeh. Samsudeen Sarr, Gambia's ambassador to the United Nations, made the comments after more than 50 people were arrested for taking part in demonstrations in the capital, Banjul.

Protesters called for electoral changes and the stepping down of Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994. Sarr claimed the protests were planned by dissidents based in the US and Western Europe, some of whom are allegedly linked to a failed coup d'etat in 2014, aimed at overthrowing Jammeh.

"They were convinced that hiring ruffians to trigger mass civil disobedience under the facade of staging a peaceful political demonstration for electoral reform will this time mobilize the 'angry Gambians' to set the nation ablaze and force the [Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction] APRC government to step down by force," said Sarr in a statement.

The official also alleged that dissidents are using "Western-based" radio stations to incite tribal fighting in the country, pitting people from the Mandingo -tribe of the main opposition party leader Ousainu Darboe - against the Jolas, the ethnic group to which Jammeh belongs.

"This couldn't but be interpreted by any concerned Gambian as a major national security threat when suddenly on April 14, 2016 a group of angry Mandingo militants from the main opposition United Democratic Party UDP illegally assembled in the heart of the largest and most crowed city in the country demanding immediate electoral reforms that they very well understood were practically impossible to attain within the limited period left before the scheduled presidential elections in December 2016," he continued.

At least 37 activists and members of the opposition were charged with organising the protests, which authorities deemed as illegal as people had failed to obtained permission from the police .It is feared that UDP's secretary, Solo Sandeng, and two others, died while they were held in detention while other people have been denied bail.

Rights groups have so far confirmed Sandeng's death only, which triggered further demonstrations culminating in the arrest of Darboe.

'Disappointing' statement

Sarr's statement was strongly criticised by activists, who claimed security forces attacked and arrested dozens of people, in spite of the fact that demonstrations were being held peacefully.

"Sarr works on image building for Jammeh. His statement lacks merit and shows his lack of political maturity as a diplomat, and we don't expect certain comments from a diplomat. Sarr's statement is not only disrespectful but an assault on peaceful protesters, who were unarmed" Gambian activist and journalist, Sainey M K Marenah, told IBTimes UK. He has been living in Senegal since he was accused by the Gambian government of publicising "false news" in 2014.

The activist also alleged that Sarr is trying to praise Jammeh after he criticised him in his book Coup d'etat by the Gambia National Army. Sarr was later pardoned after publicly apologising.

Marenah's comments follow Gambian activist Sana Sarr's criticism against what he perceived as the government's lack of regret for the way protesters were treated.

In a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, Sana Sarr said: "For a government whose leader has publicly threatened to behead homosexuals, claimed he can cure several diseases including HIV and more recently declared The Gambia an 'Islamic State' without any referendum or consultation with the citizens, I am not surprised that the Gambia government would appoint such an insensitive and callous individual [Samsudeen Sarr] to be its second highest-ranking diplomat at the UN."