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Transparency International concerned over arrest of activists

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By Omar Bah

Transparency International has expressed deep concern about the recent arrests and ‘ongoing police harassment’ of civil society advocates and activists in The Gambia, following their attempt to peacefully demonstrate about ongoing delays and the alleged corruption of a public ferry service.

Last week, activist Marr Nyang and seven other civil society advocates were arrested and detained for seven hours at police headquarters in Banjul before being released on bail.

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They planned a peaceful sit-down protest at the Arch Pavilion, an open public space, to voice their concerns about the disruption of the ferry services and alleged corruption in the Gambia Ferry Service.

They were charged with three misdemeanour offences, including common nuisance, unlawful assembly, and disobeying lawful order, charges they denied. The activists and advocates have also been asked to report to the police station every weekday until further notice.

Corruption at the ferry service has allegedly contributed to ongoing negligence and poor management of vessels on the most frequently used river crossing in The Gambia that connects the capital Banjul and the town of Barra. Overused ferries have lacked proper care and maintenance, and the frequent procurement of engines from the taxpayer’s purse has raised suspicions that unsuitable engines have been sourced.

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Under Section 5 of The Gambia’s Public Order Act, a formal request to the police is required to hold a procession. The group applied for a permit but did not get a response, so they decided to hold a sit-down protest instead.

According to Transparency International, the Public Order Act and other provisions under the criminal code that restrict freedom of assembly and freedom of expression contravene both national and international human rights provisions.

“The Public Order Act is at odds with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which The Gambia is a party to,” it added.

The organisation added that while the current government has promised to deliver democracy, “they are using the law to prevent citizens from holding peaceful protests. Recently, the Act has been used to charge human rights defender Madi Jobarteh, due to his peaceful campaign in support of accountability and respect for democratic laws.”

Samuel Kaninda, Regional Advisor for Africa, Transparency International, said: “Civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and access to justice, are integral to healthy democracies. They guarantee the participation of citizens and groups in democratic and policy processes and can help keep corruption in check. Any effort to diminish the public sphere poses a direct threat to the integrity of democracy.”

He added: “We urge the Gambian government to protect civil space and create an environment that allows citizens to hold power to account. Specifically, that the government amend and align the Public Order Act with the recommendations of the Gambia Human Rights Commission advisory note on the Right to Freedom of Association and Assembly vis-à-vis the Public Order Act”.

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