DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Rights groups called on Gambia's government on Monday to release 33 environmental activists who were detained more than a week ago after staging a protest against sand mining in their coastal village.
"We condemn unethical mining taking place in Kartong and we call on the Gambian authorities to halt mining operations and release the detained youths whose action shows that they were merely protecting their lands," said Omar Bah, chair of Gambia Youth for Unity.
Sand mining has been conducted in Kartong for years and local activists have voiced concerns about its environmental impact.
Residents and activists took to the streets on Nov. 22. On Nov. 24, Gambia charged 33 of the 40 people arrested with conspiracy, breach of peace and causing malicious injuries, among other charges, Amnesty International said.
"The right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must not be unduly curtailed because of the suspected unlawful behavior of some individuals," said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International's West Africa researcher. "The police should not arrest people on an arbitrary basis and criminal charges should only be brought against those against whom there is clear evidence."
Those detained have been denied bail while awaiting trial in the country's biggest prison, Amnesty said.
Witnesses told the rights organization that police used excessive force during the arrests.
The president of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, Aboubacry Mbodji, said: "Gambia needs to adopt a human rights based approach when dealing with issues relating to environment. The people of Kartong are exercising their rights for a better life."
The tiny, poor West African nation is surrounded by Senegal. President Yahya Jammeh's rule since 1994 has been marred by accusations of rights violations.
Associated Press writer Abdoulie John contributed to this report.