Gambia's opposition demands release of jailed leader and activists

The opposition United Democratic Party in Gambia has demanded that authorities release its leader Ousainou Darboe, pictured here on November 24, 2011, and about 40 followers kept in detention since rallies calling for political reform (AFP Photo/Seyllou)

Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - Gambia's main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) demanded on Wednesday authorities release its leader Ousainou Darboe and about 40 followers arrested after protests last month, as prosecutors filed fresh charges over the demonstrations.

Some of the activists were detained on April 14 after a rare opposition protest demanding political reforms in the small west African nation ruled with an iron fist by President Yahya Jammeh.

The others were taken into custody following a demonstration two days later against the death of UDP official Solo Sandeng, who is reported to have died suspiciously in custody, according to his party and human rights groups.

In a statement the UDP's executive committee demanded "the unconditional and immediate release of its leader and Secretary General, the lawyer Ousainou Darboe and all the others" detained after the protests in the capital Banjul.

The statement went on to say: "We demand that reports of the torture and death of Ebrima Solo Sandeng be fully investigated and the culprits brought to book."

According to the UDP, some of its members arrested by Gambian security agents have yet to be accounted for by the authorities.

"The UDP still remains deeply concern about the whereabouts of one of its supporters, Dembo S. Darboe (Touray Darboe)," the statement said.

According to the UDP, he was picked up by security officers in April and has not been heard from since.

The 18 protesters arrested on April 14 pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to a new charge of conspiracy, which comes on top of accusations that include unlawful assembly and incitation to violence.

Additionally, prosecutors filed similar charges against seven other protestors who also entered not guilty pleas.

In February, Jammeh was named his party's candidate to seek a fifth mandate in a presidential poll in December. He was first elected head of state in 1996, two years after the bloodless coup.

The regime is regularly accused by watchdog bodies and the US State Department of making opponents forcibly disappear and harassing the press and independent broadcasting media.