Gambia opposition leader calls for cleric's release

The main opposition figure in Gambia, Ousainou Darboe, has called at a rally attended by hundreds of supporters for the release of a religious leader who was jailed last month and is known for being critical of President Yahya Jammeh.

The rally was held Saturday in Brikama, a few miles south of Banjul, the capital of the tiny west African country, whose government rights groups accuse of systematically cracking down on journalists, lawyers and critics.

Imam Baba Leigh, a Muslim cleric who had criticised Jammeh's regime for carrying out the executions of nine death row inmates last year, was detained on December 3 and has been held incommunicado since.

"A country is ruled by laws and not by force. In this 21st century, Gambia is the only country where citizens or religious leaders are arrested and detained unconstitutionally and nothing is said or done about it," Darboe said.

"We have seen people disappear in this country, we have seen people arrested in this country and detained beyond the constitutional limit, which is a gross violation of their rights. ... This must stop," he said, quoted by several private radio networks.

One of Baba Leigh's relatives confirmed to AFP on Sunday that the religious leader had not been seen since his arrest.

He was driven away by men in plain clothes who introduced themselves as members of the intelligence agency.

"Since his arrest on 3rd December 2012, we are yet to set our eyes on Imam Baba Leigh. He remains in detention despite many denials by the police and the intelligence agency that he is not in their custody," one of his children said.

Jammeh announced in August last year that all death row inmates would be executed by mid-September. A week later a first batch of nine were executed by firing squad.

According to rights groups, close to 40 other prisoners faced death but no further executions were reported.

Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup, rules the country with an iron fist, brooking no criticism.

The man who claims he can cure AIDS and other illnesses is often pilloried for rights abuses and the muzzling of journalists.