More than six months after Solo Sandeng was beaten to death in the custody of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA), his family still hasn’t seen the body. They may never see it.
On April 14, 2016, Sandeng, a prominent activist with the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), led a protest calling for electoral reform in Serrekunda, a suburb of Banjul, the capital. Gambian police arrested Sandeng and more than 20 other demonstrators and bystanders. Many of them were beaten and tortured in NIA custody. Sandeng’s injuries were fatal.
“It is really hard to grieve when you haven’t had the chance to see the body – when no one has seen the body,” said Sandeng’s wife, Nyima. “When you can’t confirm that you have lost a family member, it makes you think, maybe they are still hiding him.”
The couple had nine children. The youngest is 2 years old.
Ahead of Gambia’s scheduled December 1 elections, authorities have arrested more than 90 opposition activists this year for participating in largely peaceful protests. A court has convicted and sentenced 30 opposition members to three-year prison terms. As President Yahya Jammeh runs for re-election for the fifth time, a new Human Rights Watch report, “More Fear Than Fair,” documents the government’s crackdown on the opposition.
Jim Wormington, Human Rights Watch researcher covering West Africa, met Sandeng’s family, now in exile, at their home in July, three months after Sandeng was killed. They fled Gambia after Sandeng’s death, fearing for their safety. They now live in a sparsely furnished compound. They all gathered in a room – some seated on the floor, others on a mattress – for the visit.
When Sandeng’s family heard of his arrest on April 14, they began searching for him. His wife went to the police station where he was initially detained; then Mile 2 prison, where many political prisoners are held; and finally the NIA headquarters, which is a frequent site for torture and incommunicado detention. Everyone denied holding him. Then the family heard about online media reports that Sandeng was in a coma. They tried to ignore the reports, but a friend whose daughter lives in the United States said that her daughter had seen reports that Sandeng had died.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said the couple’s 22-year-old daughter, Fatoumatta. The leader of the UDP confirmed the news to the family in the early morning hours on April 16.
Hours after receiving word of their father’s death, Fatoumatta and her brother Muhammed, 19, marched with UDP leaders to the police station where Sandeng had been detained. They chanted, “Release Solo Sandeng, dead or alive.”
“There was no fear in me that day,” said Fatoumatta, whose gaze had been fixed to the floor. She looked up, and her voice was strong, her expression confident. “All I needed was justice for my father.”
“It’s disheartening to know that your father has been beaten to death and the only thing you can do that day is just protest and ask for his body,” she said.
Officers arrived to stop the protesters, she said. They beat many with batons, and when protesters still didn’t relent, they used teargas to disperse the crowd.