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Gambia often receives only sparse international news coverage, but the tiny West African country of just under 2 million people has had a tumultuous few years. A bizarre, failed coup in 2014 caused chaos in the ultra-repressive state and led to violent crackdowns, and thousands decided to flee the country to Europe amid the refugee crisis.
Now, in the past month, Gambia has seen a small but unprecedented wave of protests against President Yahya Jammeh. The nation's leader since taking power in a 1994 coup, Jammeh governs as a harsh authoritarian who has pledged to slit the throats of gay men, claimed he can cure AIDS and vowed to rule for a billion years.
Jammeh's control over Gambia has involved the use of security forces -- as well as brutal paramilitary groups -- to quell any form of dissent, often through disappearances and torture. Despite this culture of fear and repression, protesters have been publicly demonstrating since mid-April for voting reform and release of prisoners.
"Going on a month now is the longest, most sustained and certainly largest act of public defiance against Jammeh since he came to power," Jeffrey Smith, executive director of advocacy group Vanguard Africa, told The World Post. "They’re facing off in the streets with one of the continent's most ruthless and brazenly callous regimes."
Protests Are Met With Brutal Beatings
The first major demonstration took place on April 14, when members of the opposition United Democratic Party marched through the streets in the capital of Banjul demanding election reforms. Gambia is set to hold an election this December, although due to political repression, voting conditions in the country are far from fair. The European Union and the Economic Community of West African States refused to even send election observers to the last election in 2011 as a form of boycott.
Security forces violently clamped down on the April 14 UDP rally and imprisoned around 38 of the demonstrators, according to Amnesty International. Protesters allege they were abused while in custody, with an alleged affidavit from one woman stating authorities took her into a room, where three men beat her "like an animal."
“The reason they were beaten is because Jammeh likes sending messages,” Fatu Camara, the president's former press secretary, told The WorldPost. “What Jammeh doesn’t like is a crowd.”
Camara fled Gambia in 2013 after being charged with sedition, and now operates an independent radio show and news network covering the country's politics. She is part of a sizable Gambian diaspora that tries to counter the country's state-controlled media.
Rights groups and activists also believe that during the April 14 arrests, prominent UDP member Solo Sandeng died in police custody after his arrest. While the arrests may have been intended to have a chilling effect, Sandeng's death and the imprisonment of top UDP officials caused outrage.
On April 16, dozens of opposition members returned to the streets to demand the release of prisoners and to protest Sandeng's death. At least five prominent UDP demonstrators and a number of others were detained at the gathering, and many remain in custody. Nevertheless, rights groups say small demonstrations have continued since these mass arrests.
Arrests And Brutality Put An International Spotlight On Gambia
Since Sandeng's death and the arrests that followed, a number of international organizations and activists have condemned the Gambian government's actions. On Wednesday, the European Parliament issued a statement expressing serious concern and deploring the attacks on peaceful protesters. The United States also condemned the arrests last month, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed his dismay.
Even though Gambia is a highly repressive state, rights groups say the recent detentions of opposition members have drawn special attention because of the brazen way they were carried out and their proximity to the country's elections.
“It’s relatively rare that you get so many people arrested in one go, and so much violence being openly used,” Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for West and Central Africa, told The WorldPost.
“The predominant behavior you get in Gambia -- because of the amount of repression -- is a kind of self-censorship, in the sense that people do not take to the streets and speak out because they fear what will happen to them.”
Gambia's unexpected protests and the government's draconian reaction is now bringing an increased amount of attention toward the human rights abuses in the country, a focus that observers hope will continue as the country approaches elections later this year.
“When there’s a spotlight on Gambia, there’s much greater restraint shown in terms of violating rights or repressing freedoms," Cockburn said. "When that’s turned away there’s a free rein to get away with those things."