Judging crimes of the Jammeh era poses challenge in Gambia

Judging crimes of the Jammeh era poses challenge in Gambia©Flickr/Jerome Starkey
New Gambian President Adama Barrow arriving back from Senegal, January 26, 2016
3 min 55Approximate reading time

Gambia is awaiting the creation of a transitional justice mechanism promised by the new government to help heal wounds after 22 years of dictatorial rule under former president Yahya Jammeh. In the meantime, police and judiciary have opened a series of investigations into forced disappearances under the former authorities. The task is not likely to be easy, especially since there are still people close to the former regime in the administration and judiciary.

According to a police official quoted by Agence France Presse, 33 files have so far been opened on forced disappearances under the regime of ex-president Jammeh. The precise number of people who disappeared during his 22-year reign is still unknown. 

“There are about seven cases so far on which we have advanced a lot,” added police chief Babucarr Sarr, who says new cases may well be discovered in the process. He also announced on April 4 the arrest of 10 people suspected of involvement in these disappearances, including members of the feared “Junglers” and National Intelligence Agency, agents of terror under Jammeh. 

These arrests follow a promise by new Gambian President Adama Barrow, elected in December, to create a commission of inquiry on disappearances under Jammeh, who is accused by NGOs, diplomats and many Gambians of numerous human rights abuses during his 22-year rule. “The Justice Minister will receive the information concerning all those who disappeared without trace,” Barrow declared on February 18. “A human rights commission will be set up to complement the initiatives of the Justice Ministry. 

Thanks to information from the first suspects questioned, several bodies have already been found, including that of Solo Sandeng, leader of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). He was arrested along with others in April 2016 as he took part in a public demonstration calling for political reforms. A few days later it was announced that he had died in detention. 

How far will judicial procedures go? 

Will the various investigations and commissions under way or being set up lead to trials and convictions? It is still too early to tell. Apart from the government and parliament, elected on April 4 this year, the administrative and judicial apparatus seems still largely dominated by supporters of the former regime which controlled all the institutions for 22 years. 

The case of former intelligence agents suspected of involvement Solo Sandeng’s murder demonstrates the current state of the country’s judicial system. The six judges (including four Nigerians) of the Supreme Court are the same ones that were at the beck and call of Yahya Jammeh. They have been maintained in office despite strong opposition from the country’s Bar. On April 3, they postponed starting the trial of former intelligence agents for the fifth time. In this case, the government’s case seems ill-prepared and the Justice and Interior ministries are blaming each other. The Justice Ministry says it cannot be blamed because it was not involved in questioning the suspects, while the Interior Ministry says it launched arrests to stop the suspects going on the run. As a result, the trial is in trouble even before it has started. This shows it will be a real challenge for the current judicial system to organize free and fair trials in cases related to the Jammeh era. 

It will be the task of the commission that is to be set up within six months to consider prosecuting the main perpetrators of human rights violations under Jammeh. In that case, it will have to collect all the evidence and launch a judicial process which, given lack of resources, can sometimes last for years. 

“A spirit of revenge will take us backwards” 

But to try whom? Even if some top officials have been replaced, most of the administrative and judicial apparatus remains the same. 

“Jammeh was in power for 22 years and like any dictator, once he was in power, he interfered in all government departments and ministries in order to control them,” Gambian university academic Ismaila Ceesay told RFI. “And now with this new government, which was not expecting to hold power, they have no choice other than to keep former agents of Jammeh in their posts.” He thinks that sacking all the experienced civil servants at once would lead to a collapse of the administrative system. 

“We should also not have too many illusions about the new government’s capacities for change, given the huge and various expectations of the population, but also the legacy of 22 years of a brutal regime which weakened and controlled all the institutions,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s west and central Africa director on return in early April from Banjul, where he met President Adama Barrow and other political players. 

Even in starting investigations, Adama Barrow is doing it more out of principle than anything else. He knows he will probably not see them reach a conclusion. He has promised to make his mandate a three-year transition and then hand power to those who, unlike him, aspire to a career in politics. His priority is more to restore an air of liberty and democracy to the institutions and thus to the whole country, and organize new elections to modernized institutions. His supporters already have a majority in parliament after the April legislative elections, which should help facilitate the adoption of new laws. Amnesty International says the elected Gambian parliament’s priorities should include scrapping as soon as possible inadmissible and restrictive laws which violate human rights and restrict fundamental freedoms. 

Members of the new parliament include Fatoumatta Jawara. She was arrested in April 2016 at the same time as Solo Sandeng who died in detention, but she was luckier. Although she was tortured in jail by Jammeh’s fearsome intelligence agency, she was freed by the new government before being elected as an MP. “We fought against Jammeh, he was forced to step down, but we have not yet got rid of his bad laws,” she says. “I have become a symbol, but it is not just me, it is the work of a team and I am part of that symbol. I really think that if we act in a spirit of revenge, we will take the country backwards. But we will not let them introduce laws that do that, we will prevent it.”