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Dec 5, 2016 | Gambia

Senior Gambia opposition figures freed on bail

By Jennifer O'MAHONY
Gambian opposition leader Ousainou Darboe leaves a polling station during the 2011 presidential election.  By Seyllou (AFP/File)
Gambian opposition leader Ousainou Darboe leaves a polling station during the 2011 presidential election. By Seyllou (AFP/File)

Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - Gambian opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, who had been jailed for taking part in a protest, was freed on bail with 18 others Monday, days after a shock opposition election win.

The head of his defence team said the group's bail was a sign of The Gambia's new democratic maturity following its first transfer of power by the ballot box last week.

Judges handed down the much-awaited ruling three days after an opposition coalition took a surprise victory in a presidential election that will see businessman Adama Barrow take over from President Yahya Jammeh after 22 years in office.

Ousainou and the others took part or were picked up nearby a demonstration in April over the death in custody of Solo Sandeng, a fellow member of the United Democratic Party (UDP), who had taken to the streets to demand electoral reform.

"This ruling by the court is a vindication of the country's democratisation process, which has begun," defence lawyer Atoumane Gaye said.

The UDP is one of eight political organisations represented in the coalition.

The appeal of the 19 UDP members against their three-year sentences passed down in July continues, but Gaye said he hoped that by January -- the deadline for the coalition president to take power -- they would be definitively released.

Gaye further remarked that the decision could herald a new era for independent courts in the country, which have long been seen as an instrument of outgoing president Yahya Jammeh to prosecute his critics.

Speaking to journalists prior to the ruling, the slight and elderly Darboe said he bore no grudge against Jammeh.

"I think he is someone who has done his bit," Darboe said, referring to the leader's 22-year rule.

"I have respect for him as the president of this country and I would never address him as a crazy man and I would never address him as an evil man," he added.

He was defiant, however, saying that "what I did was not against the law."

Human Rights Watch hailed "an important first step in demonstrating improved respect for the rule of law", while Amnesty International said it hoped the ruling would lead to a full acquittal.

President-elect Barrow has pledged to rejoin the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth, both institutions which Jammeh railed against and withdrew the country from, to the dismay of many.

His coalition will govern for three years with Barrow as its figurehead, after which elections will be held and he will step down in line with a memorandum signed by all the parties involved.

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