A top Gambian opposition politician and 18 other protesters were released from prison after an appeals court granted them bail on Monday, just days after strongman ruler Yahya Jammeh agreed to step aside after losing the presidential election.
The ruling prompted people in the courtroom to stand and sing the national anthem.
Ousainou Darboe, the head of the United Democratic Party, and the 18 others had been arrested in April after they took part in a peaceful demonstration. They each had been sentenced to three years in prison after they marched for electoral reform and to demand the body of party member Solo Sandeng, who was arrested days earlier and was tortured and died in prison.
Darboe is also a mentor to 51-year-old Adama Barrow, the man who defeated Jammeh in Thursday’s vote. Barrow has vowed to free all political prisoners and has urged exiles who fled Jammeh’s 22-year reign to return and help him reform this tiny West African country.
“It’s a great day! It’s a new Gambia. It is clear to Jammeh today that the power belongs to the people,” said Darboe’s wife, Mymuna, who planned to cook his favorite dish of rice and fish known as benechin when he came home. “It’s going to be celebration, celebration, celebration!”
Darboe and the other defendants were released and home by late Monday night, after checking into the Mile Two prison to turn in their international passports and have a Gambian citizen vouch for them. Hundreds lined the road leading from the prison for miles to greet them as they left. The 19 will still need to attend appeal hearings.
“The release of Ousainou Darboe and other peaceful protesters on bail is a big moment for them and their families, yet we still await their full and final acquittal,” said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa Researcher, who was present at the court.
“We must also not forget others prisoners of conscience who still languish in jail simply for having expressed their opinion or participated in peaceful protests,” said Mahtani.
Dozens were arrested in April and May in some of the first protests in years against the government.
A hearing for 14 other protesters, who were arrested and charged with “unlawful assembly” for taking part in protests in May, has been postponed to Tuesday.
Eleven others, who took part in peaceful protests on April 14 and were arrested along with Sandeng, have been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Their bail hearings are scheduled for next week.
“We’re hoping that the others will be released within the course of this week and next,” said Annie Njie, one of the lawyers representing the many people arrested for protesting.
It is unknown whether the cases will proceed now that Jammeh has indicated he will cede power in January.
Human rights groups say Jammeh’s regime has long imprisoned and often killed political opponents in an effort to maintain his grip on power.
Darboe told reporters before the appeals court hearing that he had not been mistreated in prison since being detained in April, and attributed his thinner frame to meditation.
“When I get out today, I plan to go hug my president-elect,” he said.
As for Jammeh’s reaction to the release, “I know he cannot take pride in it, because I know, lawyers know, not only in this country but throughout the world, it was not against the law,” Ousainou said of the demonstrations.
This story has been corrected to show that Ousainou Darboe has been in prison since April not since last month.
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