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Transparency International deeply concerned about recent arrests and ongoing police harassment of civil society advocates and activists in The Gambia

Transparency International is deeply concerned about the recent arrests and ongoing police harassment of civil society advocates and activists in The Gambia, following their attempt to peacefully voice concerns about ongoing delays and alleged corruption of a public ferry service.

On 21 April 2024, Marr Nyang, the leader of anti-corruption organisation Gambia Participates, and seven other civil society advocates and activists were arrested and detained for seven hours at police headquarters in Banjul, before being released on bail. 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.

After their release they were charged with three misdemeanour offences including common nuisance, unlawful assembly and disobeying lawful order, charges they deny. 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 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.

In recent years, the poorly maintained state of the ferries has resulted in repeated delays and several dangerous incidents, including passengers being stranded at sea for hours, and deaths resulting from delays reaching medical care.

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.

The day of the arrest, the police asked the group to leave the Arch Pavilion in Banjul. They complied with this request but were followed and detained nearby. Four other community activists were also arrested in Barra for protesting the ferry services.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act, requiring permission from the police to hold a procession or march, has been used to restrict public gatherings since its entry into force in 1961. This law was often used during the regime of Yahya Jammeh, who was responsible for a spree of killings, torture and rapes during his 22-year rule.

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.

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 of democratic laws.

Samuel Kaninda, Regional Advisor for Africa, Transparency International, said:

“Civil and political rights including freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, as well as 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.

We urge the Gambian government to protect civil space and create an environment that allows for 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”.