Reuters International

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Burton/Pool

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Gambia has charged six women with offences including rioting, unlawful assembly and inciting violence for demonstrating against the prosecution of dozens of opposition activists, a defence lawyer and court official said on Saturday.

Police arrested the women on May 9 outside a courthouse in the capital Banjul where about 45 members of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) were standing trial for staging protests against President Yahya Jammeh.

The demonstrations are a rare act of defiance in Gambia, where Jammeh has dealt swiftly and severely with dissent since seizing power in a 1994 coup.

This week's demonstration involved many women, some of whom carried cooking spoons -- a traditional symbol of protest in the West African nation.

UDP officials say 25 of their members were arrested outside the courthouse. It was not clear whether the other 19 protesters remained in custody or if they would face charges.

The six women were due to appear in court on Monday.

Jammeh has garnered international attention for his eccentric proclamations, including a claim to have invented a cure for HIV/AIDS, and his recent surprise decision to make Gambia an Islamic republic.

But he is also regularly denounced by rights groups and foreign governments for ruthlessly stamping out political dissent in the nation of two million people, which is a popular beach destination for budget-conscious European tourists.

Having scrapped constitutional term limits, Jammeh, who once told a report he could rule Gambia for "a billion years", is expected to win re-election again in December.

The ECOWAS regional bloc refused to send observers to the last elections in 2011, citing intimidation of the opposition and the electorate.

(Reporting by Joe Bavier; Editing by Helen Popper)

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