By Nsikan Ikpe
The government of President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia and the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) of Gambia are at loggerheads over reports that the government has transferred an unspecified number of political prisoners to an unknown location.
Thirty-eight members of the opposition, including UDP leader Ousainou Darbo, were arrested last month and charged with conspiracy to commit a felony after they held a demonstration to protest the death in custody of UDP official Solo Sandeng and to demand political reforms.
Karamba Touray, chairman of the UDP Diaspora media committee, said the party holds the Gambian government solely responsible for the personal security and well-being of the prisoners.
“What has happened today is that the second group, who were initially arrested, were abruptly and without notice to family and to anybody moved from the central prison where they were held for the past 50 something days,” Touray stated.
He accused the government of being “notorious for acting outside of the law,” especially when it comes to people disappearing while in police custody.
Touray said the UDP has evidence the prisoners were moved.
“We have proof that these prisoners were moved from the central prison today and that they were seen in vehicles driving away from that location toward the eastern part of the country. Actually, members of our party were on the road and saw the prisoners, and even waved to the prisoners,” Touray said.
He said while the party does not know exactly where the prisoners might have been taken, he cited some “unconfirmed reports” indicating the prisoners were being transported to the regional capital of Mansakonko, in the Lower River Region of the country, about 320 kilometers from the capital, Banjul.
“We know that a few weeks ago the government, in its attempt to kind of subvert the whole judicial process, decided it was going to move the trial of that group from the Banjul jurisdiction where the alleged offenses occurred to another part of the country in an attempt to prevent family members from attending the proceedings and also to try to drain all of the resources of the legal representation because all of the lawyers practice in the city,” he said.
Darbo, who was arrested along with another group of opposition protesters, has decided to represent himself after his lawyers withdrew in protest over the court’s management of the case.
“Mr. Darbo was in court Monday. His entire legal team had withdrawn the previous week. So they are without any representation, and Ousainou Darbo as leader of the people that are detained has made it very clear and has taken it upon himself to only make one statement, which is, I do not intend to go along with illegitimate process that you guys have subjected us to because this is a political trial,” Touray said.
The United States has condemned what it calls the Gambian government’s severe response to recent peaceful protests by the political opposition.
The international rights organization Amnesty International has also criticized the government and described the arrested opposition members as prisoners of conscience who should be released because they were simply expressing their political opinion as guaranteed under the Gambian constitution.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Amnesty International have called for an investigation into Sandeng’s death.
But Gambia President Yahya Jammeh told the french language magazine Jeune Afrique that no one can tell him what to do in his country. He said he saw no point of launching an investigation because of the death of one person.
Gambia Information Minister Sheriff Bojan told VOA recently that security and maintenance of public safety is paramount in Gambia.
“The president of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, has been saying time and again that public law and order and security will not be compromised in the Gambia. The Gambia is known for its civility, is known for its stability, is known for its tranquility, and no one will be allowed to put a pin in that balloon of tranquility,” Bojan said.