By Mustapha K. Darboe
For the family of Ousman Koro Ceesay, justice was done on July 14 this year when the High Court in Banjul handed former government minister Yankuba Touray the death sentence for his role in the murder of his former colleague. The ruling brought a measure of closure to the mystery that for 26 years surrounded the death of the former Finance minister.
Ceesay’s charred remains were found in his burnt out car along the Jambur highway, some 34 kilometres from Banjul, in June 1995, a few hours after he had seen off then junta chairman, Yahya Jammeh, at the airport. Some members of the junta, including Touray, have long been suspected to have been involved in his death.
With widespread allegations of foul play, the junta came out to deny that Ceesay had been murdered, claiming he had died in a car accident. However, no credible investigations were conducted to establish the cause of his death.
When the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) was set up to look into the human rights violations that occurred under the previous regime – from 1994 to 2016 – Ceesay’s murder was for the first time brought under the microscope. But Yankuba Touray, in whose house Ceesay was allegedly murdered, refused to testify, claiming he had ‘constitutional impunity’.
To many observers following the transitional justice process in The Gambia, the High Court ruling is a welcome development that could herald the direction the country is likely to take as it grapples with the task of seeking a remedy for the injustices that plagued the 22 years of former dictator Jammeh’s regime.
“This is great in the sense that it has reinforced victims’ commitment to pursue the others to bring them to justice,” said Sheriff Kijera, the chairman of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations.
The court’s decision comes at a particularly opportune moment as the country awaits the release of the report and recommendations of the truth commission, initially scheduled for July 30, but now pushed to September 30, 2021.
The ruling is likely to pacify many, who have previously expressed concern about the government’s commitment to ensuring justice for the many victims of Jammeh’s brutal regime and appropriate punishment for those bearing the greatest responsibility for such suffering, including the former president himself.
Kijera added: “We are confident that Jammeh will also have his day in court. This is a message to Yahya Jammeh and all those who bear the greatest responsibility that there is no way you can run from justice. The long arm of justice will finally get a grip on you.”
Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists shares the same views, saying the conviction of Touray was good news for all those seeking justice for the crimes committed under former President Jammeh.
Brody, a one-time lawyer with Human Rights Watch, has been involved in the Jammeh2Justice campaign, a coalition of rights activist pursuing justice for Jammeh-era crimes.
“The conviction of Yankuba Touray is a major breach in the wall of impunity which has surrounded the crimes of the Jammeh era and augurs well for how the TRRC’s recommendations will be handled by the Gambian justice system,” the international human rights lawyer said.
“Almost as important as the conviction itself was the Supreme Court’s ruling that Jammeh’s constitution could not be used to shield Yankuba Touray from criminal liability.”
The military junta that snatched power in a 1994 bloodless coup in The Gambia changed the constitution to exempt members of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), of which Touray was a member, from any civil or criminal prosecution for anything they had done between 1994 and 1997 in the course of their official duties. However, the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that murder was not part of ‘official duty’.
Several witnesses at the trial and at the TRRC implicated Edward Singhatey, a former Defence minister, and his brother, Peter, in Ceesay’s murder. According to the testimonies, the two siblings played a leading role in the planning and killing of the former economist and Finance minister. Edward denied the claims when he testified before the truth commission in October 2019.
“Koro was a man of discipline, integrity, and service, with a fantastic sense of humour and love for his family,” said Ceesay’s family in a statement issued shortly after the High Court sentenced Touray.
“Today marked the beginning of a new dawn with one conviction. We trust that by the grace of God, the rest of the people who took part in the murder will be brought to justice.”
The case against Touray and the Singhateys
The motive behind Ceesay’s death is still not known. However, the truth commission and the High Court have heard detailed and chilly descriptions of how the brutal murder was carried out.
In February 2020, Alagie Kanyi, a former soldier now serving in Gambia’s immigration services, confessed before the court that he participated in the murder of Ceesay in Touray’s house. He alleged that Edward Singhatey, his brother Peter, and Yankuba Touray were the architects of the crime.
According to the Justice minister at the time of Ceesay’s death, Mustapha Marong, the military leaders never investigated the case. “Most of the civilian ministers in the cabinet thought Koro had been murdered,” Marong told the TRRC in April 2019.
According to Pa Abibu M’Baye, a retired police officer who was a prosecution witness at Touray’s trial and the crime management coordinator at the time of Ceesay’s murder, preliminary details gathered from the crime scene and other significant places suggested that the former minister was murdered. Like several other people who testified before the commission, he said Ceesay’s alleged accident scene appeared to have been staged.
M’Baye said that although it was claimed that Ceesay’s vehicle had rolled, it had few dents to support such an occurrence. He said he received a call the night before Ceesay’s body was found with information that a Land Rover belonging to Edward Singhatey and a black ministerial Mercedes Benz had been seen in the vicinity of the alleged accident scene after 1am.
When the former police officer went to observe the post mortem on Ceesay’s body, he found Peter Singhatey at the mortuary and noticed that his right hand was bandaged. He said this confirmed a report he had received earlier that Peter had hurt his hand as he helped to set the body on fire.
Several weeks later, M’Baye’s bosses sent him home, then dismissed him from the service. He later learned that his sacking was prompted by an executive directive from the presidency.
When Edward Singhatey appeared before the TRRC in October 2019, he denied any knowledge of the murder. He contradicted the testimony of his orderly and driver, Lamin Marong and Lamin Fatty respectively, which placed him at the scene of Ceesay’s murder, claiming that he was at home.
He said Marong and Fatty had reason to lie about him because he had kicked them out of his house.
Touray’s bodyguard, Amadou Jangom, said his boss asked him to take his family to Edward Singhatey’s house in Fajara near the Bakau Craft Market for a birthday celebration.
The minister later instructed them to patrol the beach at Fajara and to be on the lookout for a boat full of illegal guns. Touray denied claims that he had sent Jangom and his team on a wild goose chase to facilitate the murder of Ceesay.
The president, who was then simply Captain Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, had travelled to Ethiopia.
Jangom said when he returned he found Edward Singhatey smoking near Touray’s gate. He claimed that he appeared unkempt, was dripping wet, and had mud on his shoes. Singhatey denied that he was a smoker.
“The evidence led by the prosecutions shows that there was a high scheme conspiracy hatched by Edward Singhatey, Peter Singhatey, and the accused person to kill the deceased,” said Justice Ebrima Jaiteh.
“Alagie Kanyi gave evidence of how they met at the house of Edward Singhatey and were briefed by Mr Singhatey that they were going to get rid of the deceased. His evidence shows that they drove to the residence of the accused person, which at the time was empty as there was no guard or family member of the accused person in the said house.”
Justice delayed is not denied
Coincidentally, June 14, the day Touray was convicted and sentenced, would have been the 90th birthday of Seni Sise, the father of Ousman Koro Ceesay. Sise died in 2014 still asking how and why his son died, and without seeing any investigation or resolution of his death.
For his family, it has been 26 long years of waiting for justice, but it has been worth it.
“We wish our parents, Mr Seni Sise and Mrs Fatoumatta Sise, were here to witness this … However, we hope they are looking down and are grateful for this day,” said the family’s statement.
“Although it has taken more than two decades, we know Allah’s timing is perfect. Today, the court has shown us that no one is above the law. The rule of law has taken its course on Yankuba Touray… And it has been quite a great day for justice. It is a historic moment for our justice system,” added Kijera.
Cover-up suggests state’s complicity in murder
Evidence before the court suggests there was no will among those in authority to investigate Ceesay’s murder. There was no official probe despite police officers’ preliminary conclusions of possible foul play. Security officials, including former Interior minister and army chief Babucarr Jatta, agreed with the initial conclusion.
“The question that begs an answer is why no investigation was launched into the death of the deceased by the accused person and his cabinet colleagues if they don’t have anything to hide from the public? Why were the people who started investigating the case dismissed from the service of the police? The obvious answer is that if the accused person had nothing to hide about the death of the deceased, investigations would have been allowed to go on without any form of intimidation towards the investigators or their dismissal, as in the case of Pa Abibu M’Baye. It is our submission that the above pieces of evidence corroborate the evidence of Alagie Kanyi and inextricably link the accused person to the death of the deceased,” said Justice Jaiteh.
The consequences for Peter and Edward
Gambian law does not provide for secondary participation in criminal matters. This means that if one willingly takes part in the commission of a crime, he or she is a principal player.
The evidence before both the High Court and the truth commission seems to suggest that Edward and Peter Singhatey were the main architects of Ceesay’s murder, and that Touray was just a follower. Many legal commentators have said the brothers will have a hard time fighting any charges brought against them if Touray’s conviction and sentence are allowed to stand.
For rights activists, the verdict signals that it is the right time to pursue justice for other Jammeh-era crimes.
“This verdict is a huge relief for victims that the road to justice may be long but it shall come to pass one day. It gives hope that ultimately all perpetrators, especially unrepentant and remorseless ones such as Yankuba Touray himself as well as Edward Singhatey and Yaya Jammeh, will face justice for their heinous crimes,” activist Madi Jobarteh said.
“While I do not support the death penalty, the ruling is significant in the quest to give victims and survivors the last laugh.”
Gambia is moving into a post-truth commission era and there are a lot of thorny questions about the political will to ensure justice for Jammeh-era crimes. But for Kijera, the Touray verdict “has reinforced the commitment of victims to pursue justice for others”.
Debate on what to do about Jammeh-era crimes has been going on for some time. The case of Touray, the most high-profile member of the junta to be sentenced for a crime committed under the former military ruler, appears to give a glimpse of what the situation may look like: messy and controversial. However, most commentators agree that if a former high-ranking official like Touray can be held responsible for his criminal acts, then so can anyone else, including Jammeh. Now all attention is on the report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. The question of whether there is political will to implement the TRRC recommendations when the report lands on President Adama Barrow’s desk is on everyone’s lips.
“Hopefully, the government will move swiftly, either through the ordinary Gambian courts or a special court, to ensure that those fingered by the TRRC as having the greatest criminal responsibility are held accountable,” said Brody.