Banjul - A Gambian court denied bail to 37 opposition activists accused of rioting, illegal protest and other offences and ordered their lawyers to present a written bail application on Thursday, lawyers said.
After Monday's hearing in the High Court in Banjul, the secretary general of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), Ousainou Darboe, and 31 others were taken back to jail by armed police.
Five of the accused were absent from the court without explanation, including senior UPD official Solo Sandeng, who is reported to have died suspiciously in custody by his party, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Sandeng was among 18 people arrested on April 14 when security forces broke up a rare opposition protest at Westfield, about 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the capital.
The protesters had called for radical political reforms in the small west African nation ruled with an iron fist by President Yahya Jammeh since a coup in 1994.
The four other defendants who did not appear are also feared dead or seriously injured by rights watchdog organisations and have been identified as Lamin Ceesay, Fatoumatta Camara, Fatoumatta Jawara and Nokoi Njie. The last three are women.
The 19 other defendants, including UDP leader Darboe, were arrested by riot police on April 16 when they demonstrated in a commercial district on the outskirts of Banjul and demanded to see Sandeng's body “dead or alive”.
At a hearing last week, the accused all pleaded not guilty to six charges, including incitement to violence as well as unlawful assembly, legal sources said.
Last February, the 50-year-old Jammeh was named his party's candidate to seek a fifth mandate in a presidential poll in December. He was first elected head of state in 1996, two years after the bloodless coup.
The regime is regularly accused by watchdog bodies and the US State Department of making opponents forcibly disappear and harassing the press and independent broadcasting media.
“Sandeng's senseless death in custody appears to be the latest in a long line of abuses against the political opposition in Gambia,” HRW's West Africa director Corinne Dufka said in a statement last month.
“This case heightens concerns that the Gambian government will intensify its crackdown on independent voices ahead of elections in December,” she added.