Gambia: death penalty for former leaders of the national intelligence agency

On July 13, 6 members of the top leadership of the National Intelligence Agency, a place notorious for torture and disappearance under the regime of Yahya Jammeh (1994-2017), were sentenced to death for their role in the 2016 killing of political activist Ebrima Solo Sandeng, and other crimes. This was the most high-profile case connected to Jammeh’s crimes to be prosecuted in the Gambia.

The headquarters of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA) seen from above. Portrait of Ebrima Solo Sandeng in the inset.The National Intelligence Agency headquarters in Banjul, where political activist Ebrima Solo Sandeng was tortured to death in April 2016. © Thierry Cruvellier + DR
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On July 22, 2016, the main political opponent of Gambia’s then president Yahya Jammeh — Ousainu Darboe — walked into a quiet courtroom in the High Court complex in Banjul, Gambia’s capital city. The place was packed with his supporters and families of over a dozen executive members of the United Democratic Party (UDP) arrested with him. The vicinity of the court was equally packed with UDP supporters, often clashing with paramilitary forces. 

This was barely 5 months before the presidential election that Jammeh would lose to Adama Barrow, a former treasurer of the UDP. The political climate was intense. 

Darboe has been Jammeh’s main political rival since 1996. He was now sentenced to 3 years in jail for holding a peaceful protest demanding the return of the body of Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a former UDP youth leader who had died in the hands of operatives of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) on April 15. A day before his death Sandeng had been arrested with over a dozen others for holding a peaceful protest demanding proper electoral reforms. The state admitted his death in custody. But they refused to release his body which, his murder trial would confirm, was buried at a training school of the NIA, an hour drive from Banjul. They claimed Sandeng died of “shock and respiratory failure”, in a death certificate signed by one Lamin Lang Sanyang. 

Treating death with disdain

Six years later, on July 13, in the same court it was now the turn of the former leadership of the NIA to appear before Justice Kumba Sillah Camara and learn about their fate. 

The ex-NIA chief Yankuba Badjie, former deputy director of operations Sheikh Omar Jeng, and agents Baboucarr Sallah, Masireh Tamba, and Lamin Darboe were found guilty of murdering Sandeng. They were all sentenced to death. (Death penalty still stands in the Gambia although it has not been applied for years. Death penalties are usually commuted to life imprisonment.)

“Even after his death, his body was treated with disdain. Even the gloves they wore while digging his grave were thrown at him in the grave. He was not given a Muslim burial which he was entitled to as a Muslim,” said Justice Kumba Sillah Camara, as he delivered his judgement. 

The judge also found the six men guilty of inflicting bodily harm to the dozen others arrested with Sandeng. The doctor, who is in fact a nurse, Lamin Lang Sanyang, was found to have forged the death certificate of Sandeng and lied to the court about it. He got a 10-year sentence. The seventh accused in the trial, Haruna Susso, walked free as there was no evidence linking him to the death of Sandeng. Another accused, Luis Gomez, had died in detention. 

This was the most talked-about, high-profile case connected to Jammeh’s crimes to be prosecuted in the Gambia. The Ministry of Justice, struggling with capacity challenges, had hired private lawyers to handle it. 

A 300-page judgment

Fatoumata Sandeng last saw her father in the morning of April 14, 2016. “He told me they were going for a protest. In my mind, I think he knew he would be arrested because that was the norm in the Gambia,” she told Justice Info. While at work, she heard about his arrest but her father was held incommunicado. She would only learn later through others that he was tortured to death. “The manner in which he was killed will always remain there. It hurts every single minute,” she said. 

Fatoumata Sandeng is part of the movement “Jammeh-2-justice”, which puts her at the center of the civil society crusade for Jammeh to be tried. However, on the day of the ruling, Sandeng had had no prior notification and she could not attend. Her brother who was in court called her on WhatsApp.

It was a long day. The 300-page judgement was read from 9 a.m to 8 p.m. “It was worth it. I could not sit helplessly without feeling I was present because I really wanted to be there,” said Fatoumatta Sandeng. “Like my little sister told me this morning, it is like she is living in another world. She could feel some ease in her heart,” Fatoumatta’s sister said.

The main missing target

Since his fall from grace in January 2017, Gambia’s former ruler has been exiled in Equatorial Guinea. But the grip of justice seems to be tightening. A state inquiry established by his successor Adama Barrow found Jammeh responsible for several killings. At least 5 members of Jammeh’s hit-squad, called the Junglers, have confessed during the inquiry to involvement in several executions and had an undisclosed deal with the state for their freedom. A former senior government minister under his regime is serving life for killing the country's former Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay. A former Interior minister under his regime is in pre-trial detention in Switzerland. A former Jungler is being tried in Germany for involvement in the execution of prominent journalist Deyda Hydara while another Jungler is being detained in the United States. In May the Barrow administration said they have accepted the recommendation to prosecute Jammeh.

"The long arm of the law is catching up to Jammeh’s accomplices, one by one, in Gambia and around the world. What victims are expecting now is that the government will deliver on the long-delayed promise of justice by setting up a more thorough legal framework to allow the prosecution of Jammeh himself and all those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes of his regime," said Reed Brody, an American lawyer who is working with victims of Jammeh and is part of the campaign “Jammeh-2-justice”.