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Gambian opposition figure dies in detention, opposition leader arrested

The leader of Gambia's opposition has been arrested after protesting the death in custody of a senior party official. The West African country could be set for further unrest.

A senior party figure in Gambia's main political opposition has died in police custody after a peaceful protest, rights group Amnesty International said Saturday, triggering a demonstration at which the party chief and other senior leaders were arrested.

United Democratic Party (UDP) leader Ousainou Darboe was arrested along with three senior party figures after holding a news conference demanding to see the body of UDP organizing secretary Solo Sandeng, who died in police custody after holding a rare demonstration on Thursday calling for electoral reform.

"These people have done nothing wrong. They have exercised their constitutional right and that constitutional right we are now going to exercise," Darboe said at the press conference. "We are going out there to ask for Solo's body to be given to us. We are going to ask for Madam Fatoumata Jawara and the rest to be released."

Jawara heads the UDP youth wing and is believed to be critically injured.

Sandeng had organized a protest on Thursday demanding electoral reform and the resignation of President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled the small West African country with an iron fist since coming to power in a bloodless 1994 coup. Security forces intervened, beating and arresting several people, according to witnesses.

Amnesty International said Sandeng and others were taken to a local prison and then interrogated at the National Intelligence Agency. He died of unknown causes shortly after being detained, the rights group said.

"The tragic death in detention of Solo Sandeng must leave no space for impunity. The authorities must conduct an immediate, thorough and independent investigation," said Sabrina Mahtani, West Africa researcher for Amnesty International.

President Jammeh was out of the country attending an Islamic conference in Turkey.

Known for making strange claims, the eccentric ruler, who recently

declared an Islamic republic,

is expected to win a fifth term in December elections after scrapping term limits.

President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia attends the 44th summit of the 15-nation west African bloc ECOWAS at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Foundation in Yamoussoukro on March 28, 2014 Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Jammeh has made strange claims in the past, including one claiming he has developed a cure for HIV/AIDS

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the African Union sent monitors to the 2011 election, in which Jammeh secured 72 percent of the vote. They judged the vote to be largely free and fair.

But regional body ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, refused to send monitors, citing intimidation of the opposition and electorate. Other rights organizations, such as Freedom House, said the elections were marred by suppression of the opposition, media and civil society.

The UDP is protesting an electoral law they argue places restrictions on opposition candidates. The party also recently filed a lawsuit against the state for keeping a Jammeh ally as head of the electoral commission.

Gambia has also come under

harsh criticism for human rights violations

.

Earlier this week, the US State Department released a human rights report describing abuses including torture, arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances and government harassment of critics.

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