DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Gambia’s government is setting up a special prosecutor’s office to investigate for severe human rights violations and potentially charge former dictator Yahya Jammeh, who fled into exile in 2017 after 22 years in power.
Wednesday’s government announcement came in response to recommendations from a truth, reconciliation and reparations commission that Jammeh face prosecution for murder, torture and sexual violence while he ruled from 1994 to 2017.
The commission’s report — presented to President Adama Barrow and made public in December — was based on years of witness testimonies.
Gambia’s Justice Minister Dawda A. Jallow said Wednesday’s move is “an important milestone” in the country’s transitional justice process. The announcement came in the form of a 173-page white paper that made clear that the government was accepting most of the commission’s more than 260 recommendations to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations during Jammeh’s time in power.
The document said the government would pass legislation giving it jurisdiction over torture and international crimes, and that it intends to create a special framework in its domestic court system for their prosecution. While the court is located in Gambia, sittings can be held in other countries, it said.
Jammeh lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea, and it remains unclear whether authorities there would agree to a potential extradition request from Gambia.
Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists, who works with Jammeh’s victims, called Wednesday’s move an important and meaningful step forward, but added: “Now the government will have to demonstrate with concrete actions to an increasingly skeptical public that it actually has the determination to bring the perpetrators to book.”
“Laws still have to be enacted, a court has to be established, cases have to be prepared, and Yahya Jammeh has to be brought into custody,” he said.
The evidence is there, he told The Associated Press, including from many of his henchmen, directly linking Jammeh to crimes including murder, torture and rape.
“If the Gambian government really wants to make it happen, and puts in the work, we could see Jammeh in handcuffs in the next few years. But it is all a question of political will,” he added.
Amid rising demand for justice within Gambia, Jallow, the justice minister, said that “reconciliation must be balanced with the need to ensure accountability and that perpetrators who bear the greatest responsibility for human rights abuses are made to face justice and answer for their crimes.”
He spoke Wednesday at a ceremony in Kololi, some 9 kilometers outside of Banjul.
“There is no doubt that the country has gone through a very traumatic experience and is in dire need of individual and collective healing as well as reconciliation, not just with the perpetrators of these human rights violations but with our past as a nation,” he added.
Gambian authorities also said they would prosecute former vice president Isatou Njie-Saidy for her alleged role in a student massacre, and would not grant amnesty to the former second-in-command of the junta, Sanna Sabally.
They described Sabally as “one of the individuals that bears the highest responsibility for gross human rights abuses and violations in the early days of the Jammeh regime.”
Jammeh lost the 2016 presidential election but refused to concede defeat to Barrow. He ultimately fled amid threats of a regional military intervention to force him from power.
The truth commission was mandated to establish an impartial historical record of abuses. More than two years of hearings that led to the report documented human rights abuses and other crimes during Jammeh’s rule.
Human rights groups say arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and summary executions became the regime’s hallmark. Testimonies by alleged perpetrators before the truth commission confirmed that some killings were done under Jammeh’s direction.
The commission report also said Jammeh had raped women, including Fatou Jallow who later testified before the commission and published a book about her ordeal.
Jammeh denies any wrongdoing.