Gambia honours pro-democracy activist killed in custody

Thousands of people turned out in the Gambian capital on Tuesday for the official funeral of a pro-democracy activist who died in custody in 2016 following protests against former dictator Yahya Jammeh.

Mourners lined the streets of Banjul as police passed by carrying the flag-draped coffin of Solo Sandeng, in a ceremony that revived memories of Jammeh's brutal rule.

The dictator held sway over the tiny West African state for 22 years until he was unexpectedly defeated in presidential elections in December 2016 by political newcomer Adama Barrow and fled to Equatorial Guinea.

Sandeng was arrested along with dozens of others on April 14, 2016, after he organised a protest calling for the return of democracy.

His death in custody was announced two days later on April 14, 2016, at the age of 57. It proved a catalyst for uniting the country's fractured opposition and driving a wave of pro-democracy protests which ultimately led to Jammeh's fall.

Justice Minister Dawda Jallow paid tribute to Sandeng, describing him as "a man who paid the ultimate price in fighting for the cause he genuinely believed in.

"He has left an indelible mark in the political history of this country.

"His legacy will continue to live on in the history of our democratic transition as a nation," the minister said.

- 'National hero' -

The coffin was placed before a huge Greek-style arch in Banjul that Jammeh built in the 1990s and which has been re-dedicated to the memory of his victims.

Sandeng, who was the secretary of the United Democratic Party, was later buried at the Dippa Kunda mosque in the suburbs of the capital.

"Solo Sandeng epitomises a national hero for Gambians," his eldest son Muhammed told the funeral service.

His body was exhumed in March 2017 and six members of Jammeh's National Intelligence Agency were convicted of his murder in July 2022 -- with the agency's former director being sentenced to death.

Banjul has observed a moratorium on executions with death sentences converted to life in jail.

Sandeng's family is at the forefront of efforts to make the Barrow government keep its promise to put Jammeh and dozens of others accused of multiple crimes under the dictatorship on trial.

The Gambian authorities have charged Jammeh with murder, rape, torture and corruption.

However, the former dictator retains substantial clout back home.

If a reminder was needed of Gambia's fragile democracy, the government announced it had prevented a coup last December.

Barrow's government -- which won elections in 2016 and again in 2021 -- has yet to fully implement recommendations made by a truth and reconciliation commission.

bn-prc-lal/jg/rc/ri/bp/rox