On April 14, on the outskirts of Banjul, the capital of the West African country of Gambia, a small group of young men and women gathered on a street corner, carrying banners calling for the resignation of President Yahya Jammeh, the autocrat who has ruled the country for more than 20 years. The protesters were members of the United Democratic Party (UDP), and their frustration at Jammeh’s brutal and corrupt regime had reached a tipping point.
Months earlier, the government had introduced new electoral laws that redrew district boundaries to favor the ruling party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, and increased the registration fee for new parties. And in March, the party nominated Jammeh as its candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for December, for what would be his fifth five-year term.
The protesters were led by Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a young and prominent member of the UDP. As he and the others marched along the main thoroughfare that leads to the center of Banjul, soldiers clad in full military gear blocked their way. According to eyewitness reports, the soldiers hit Sandeng and the other protesters with the butts of their rifles, threw them in the back of army trucks, and drove them away to the notorious Mile II prison. According to a statement by one prisoner, the soldiers then took them in groups of five to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency in Banjul, where drunken, masked men tortured them. Sandeng himself was beaten repeatedly and then led into a courtyard, where, the prisoner recounted, he lay “on the ground, badly beaten and bleeding profusely.” When the prisoner called out his name, there was no response.
The following day, after reports surfaced that Sandeng had died, the government denied the story and accused its opponents of slander. On April 16, Ousainou Darboe, the head of the UDP, demanded that the government produce Sandeng “dead or alive.” He and at least six other senior members of the party were arrested
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