Intimidation of opposition parties, media repression and politicised security forces have "all but extinguished" the chance of a free and fair election in the Gambia next month, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
In a report released a month ahead of a vote expected to deliver President Yahya Jammeh's fifth term in power, the rights group said the strongman's tightening grip on Gambian society meant a truly democratic process was unlikely.
The "climate of fear among many opposition politicians and activists... severely limits their ability to criticise Jammeh and his government," said the report, entitled "More fear than fair".
Since April, activists with the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) have been arrested during peaceful protests and at least two have died in custody, while several more are serving three-year jail sentences for holding demonstrations.
These arrests ran in tandem with increasing suppression of free speech and the demand of absolute loyalty to Jammeh by the security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
"The security forces are his tools, and he uses them to control Gambia by arresting people who don't share his views," a prominent opposition figure told the rights group.
Furthermore, the president's Alliance for Patriotic Re-Orientation and Construction (APRC) "routinely used state resources for campaigning... and have mobilised civil servants and security force members to act on behalf of his re-election," the report said.
The opposition was limited to a two-week campaigning period in November, "the only time" state media reported on their activities.
The government has long been accused of intimidating and arbitrarily arresting journalists, and as a result many "temper their reporting of the government to avoid reprisals," according to the report.
The allegations come days after opposition parties decided to join forces to field a single candidate, the UDP's Adama Barrow, to take on Jammeh on December 1.
Before the nation's last presidential vote in 2011, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said Jammeh's control of the media and intimidation of voters meant the election could not be free and fair.
This time, ECOWAS, the European Union and the United States, "should set clear benchmarks for the government to meet ahead of the election," the rights watchdog said, adding that if they were not met a package of sanctions should be applied.
Jammeh has derided international calls for investigations into activists' deaths in custody, and in words addressed to the opposition in May said: "If you want to destabilise this country, I will bury you nine-feet deep."