By Waceke Njoroge
Human rights abusers recommended for prosecution in the much-awaited report of The Gambia’s truth commission must be held criminally accountable for their actions, activists and lawyers have said.
“Whether it is in The Gambia, in another African country, before a special court, or at the ICC, justice must happen and justice will happen. Impunity is not an option,” said Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in a video message to a public forum held at the Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara International Conference Centre in Banjul.
The debate comes at a time when unconfirmed sources have claimed that the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) report, whose release has been postponed two times, is set to be handed to President Adama Barrow before the December 4 presidential elections. The commission was set up to investigate human rights abuses allegedly committed during the 22-year dictatorship of former president Yahya Jammeh.
Anxiety has been building among victims, human rights defenders, and activists that Barrow, who had formerly promised to implement the TRRC’s recommendations, appeared to waver as he courted the support of Jammeh’s political party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, to help him win a second term.
Several speakers at the November 17 meeting, whose theme was “From Truth to Justice – The Implementation of TRRC Recommendations on Prosecutions”, did not agree with the narrative of reconciliation and reparations that is being pushed by certain parties in The Gambia, who insist that holding accountable some of the people responsible for the violations would divide the country and bring about insecurity.
“Without accountability, healing and reconciliation will be illusory and the wounds will remain open,” said Fatou Jagne Senghore, Executive Director of Article 19 West Africa. She expressed concern that many former officials of Jammeh’s administration suspected of perpetrating some of the violations continued to hold senior public offices.
“The slogan ‘Never Again’ is rubbish without prosecuting those who bear the greatest responsibility for gross human rights violations,” Emmanuel Daniel Joof, the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission in The Gambia, said.
Howard Varney of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), supported the call for justice. The official, who has worked with truth commissions in South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Timor-Leste, cited a forthcoming ICTJ report which, he said, showed that only countries that took atrocity cases seriously and set up “dedicated investigative and prosecutorial mechanisms” delivered meaningful justice to victims.
Gambians were advised to choose, in the December 4 elections, a president who was willing to seek justice for victims by implementing the TRRC report. “Accountability is a question of political will,” explained Tiawan Gongloe, the president of the Liberia National Bar Association.
He gave the example of his own country, whose progress he said had been negatively affected by its failure to implement a recommendation to set up an extraordinary criminal court to punish perpetrators in two brutal civil wars.
Gongloe, a survivor of torture, insisted on the right of victims to demand justice. “No one has the authority to tell a victim to forgive. Saying ‘let bygones be bygones’ is to side with the perpetrators.”
Speakers supported the setting up of a court tailored to address the situation in The Gambia, and which would win the support of the citizens.
Luciano Hazan, the chairperson of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which visited The Gambia in 2017, said a “hybrid” national-international court designed to prosecute Jammeh-era crimes would serve to bring justice, and at the same time build capacity in the country.
Acknowledging the 59 migrants from neighbouring countries killed during Jammeh’s era, Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) recommended the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as the appropriate partner to help hold the former president to account. He explained that ECOWAS, which played a significant role in getting Jammeh out when he tried to cling to power after losing the elections in 2016, has sufficient leverage to get Equatorial Guinea, which is hosting the former president, to cooperate in getting him to face justice.
He also suggested that victims be made part of the trials, as is the custom in international tribunals and courts such as the ICC. The trials could be held in another country for security purposes and to avoid witness suppression, while being televised to allow victims to follow the proceedings.
The court should be “as Gambian as possible”, while also adding “international elements”, suggested Stephen Rapp, former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues and former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Salieu Taal, the president of the Gambia Bar Association, supported the proposal. He said Gambians should “own” the process, and that internationalisation would provide capacity and give victims a greater role in trials.
Sirra Ndow of the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances voiced the concerns of many Gambians, who support prosecutions apart from the TRRC process.
“The Gambia government’s unfortunate and unfair decision to wait for the TRRC recommendations before possibly considering the prosecution of crimes under Jammeh’s regime has cost us valuable time. Some victims have passed away, others live with life-long injuries while watching those responsible for their pain living freely in their communities. All actors must do everything to ensure justice is not further delayed,” she said.
Clément Abaifouta, the president of the Chadian Association of Victims, encouraged the Gambian victims not to give up. “If Hissène Habré could be brought to justice, Yahya Jammeh can be brought to justice too,” he said.
In 2016, an international tribunal set up in Senegal found Habré, a former Chad president, guilty of rape, sexual slavery, and ordering the killing of 40,000, and sentenced him to life in prison. The conviction was a major victory for human rights defenders, who had mounted a campaign to get Habre to face justice since he left power in 1990.
“Let us together build an Africa of justice, an Africa free of dictators,” said Abaifouta, who was forced to dig graves for many of his co-detainees when he himself was a prisoner during the regime of Habré.
The forum was organised by the Gambia Bar Association, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), ICJ, and ICTJ.
Others who spoke included human rights lawyer Neneh M.C. Cham, Gaye Sowe, Executive Director of IHRDA, and Ayeshah Jammeh of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations.