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Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - A Gambian court has charged opposition activists with rioting, illegal protest and incitement to violence for organising rare demonstrations last week that rights groups say were peaceful.
Thirty-six activists including United Democratic Party (UDP) leader Ousainou Darboe were charged with six different offences on Wednesday and Thursday and will be kept in custody until their bail hearing due next week at Banjul's High Court.
Eighteen of the defendants were arrested last Thursday when UDP organising secretary Solo Sandeng and dozens of others made a public call for electoral reform, with some protesters demanding the resignation of strongman President Yahya Jammeh, according to witnesses.
UDP leader Darboe confirmed Sandeng's death in custody to AFP on Saturday, and the UN has called on the Gambian authorities to conduct an investigation into how exactly he died.
Two women arrested along with Sandeng last Thursday and believed to be dead or suffering from serious injuries, Nogoi Njie and Fatoumata Jawara, failed to appear in court, with all three absent from the charge sheet.
"In view of Solo Sandeng's death in custody, the government's failure to produce these individuals raises real concern about their fate," said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The Gambian government should release them immediately or explain publicly what has happened to them."
The only official response has come from the Gambia's Information Minister Sherrif Bojang, who told AFP he was unaware if detained opposition protesters had died in custody or where others were being detained, while asserting the two rare demonstrations that had been held were illegal.
Another 18 defendants were charged Wednesday in relation to a peaceful march by around 150 supporters including Darboe on Saturday to call for justice for Sandeng and the two women.
The UDP members pleaded not guilty to various charges including unlawful assembly, rioting, "riotously interfering with vehicles", incitement to violence, holding a procession without a permit and disobeying an order to disperse from an unlawful procession.
Amnesty International west Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani told AFP on Saturday that the arrests came after "what we've been told by eyewitnesses was a peaceful protest."
Defence lawyer Antouman Gaye said he had applied for bail for the defendants, and the next hearing is due Monday.
Pansy Thlaku, chairwoman of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, said the regional body had requested access to those in detention.