A Gambian court freed a prominent lawyer, Ousainou Darboe, and 18 other political prisoners on bail on Monday pending an appeal of their jail term for “unlawful assembly”, in a sign that President Yahya Jammeh’s shock election defeat last week could end years of repression.
The released opposition members were jailed for three years in July by the High Court in Banjul for unlawful assembly, incitement to violence and conspiracy.
They were arrested after a demonstration in April calling for political reforms and to protest against the death of Solo Sandeng, The national organizing secretary of the UDP, who was arrested after a demonstration on April 14 and died in custody.
His death sparked the April 16 demonstration which resulted in more arrests including that of the leader of the UDP, Ousainou Darboe.
Their release comes days after the election of Adama Barrow ending the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh. They are expected to be fully acquitted as part of President-elect Barrow’s promise of releasing all political prisoners.
Darboe appeared thin in a long blue robe but grinned broadly as he hugged family members and friends in the courtroom. He was greeted by cheers and cries of “A new Gambia!” as riot police attempted to control a large crowd of supporters outside.
Separately, 14 other political prisoners and Darboe supporters detained in May appeared before Gambia’s High Court on Monday but the judge delayed a decision on their bail.
Jammeh ruled Gambia for 22 years with an iron fist and little tolerance of dissent. Rights groups say the government routinely imprisoned and tortured political opponents.
But his ouster at the ballot box, and his shock acceptance of his defeat despite previously saying he would rule for “a billion years”, has raised hopes that democracy is dawning in the small, riverside West African nation of 1.8 million people.
The election results gave Adama Barrow, a real estate developer who once worked as a security guard at retailer Argos in London, a clear win over Jammeh.
51-year-old Adama Barrow was the flagbearer of the UDP before he was elected to represent a seven party opposition coalition to unseat Yahya Jammeh.
Barrow received the blessing of party founder Ousainou Darboe who was in prison at the time of his election to lead the party.
Human rights organization Amnesty International welcomed their release and called for the release of other prisoners of conscience.
“It is finally time for the families of those people wrongly detained to be reunited with their loved ones,” Amnesty International’s Steve Cockburn said.
“Adama Barrow has promised to release all political prisoners and he should ensure this goes beyond opposition figures and includes everyone jailed simply for expressing their views,” he added.