Germany has arrested seven asylum seekers from The Gambia who are suspected of having committed crimes against humanity during the 22-year rule of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. [TDN] The arrests come as The Gambia takes steps towards justice and reconciliation, primarily via its Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which has been holding public hearings since January 2019. [JusticeInfo] Since assuming the presidency in 2017, Adama Barrow’s government has signaled a new approach to human rights, including by ratifying United Nations human rights treaties, authorizing complaints by individuals and NGOs to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR), committing to constructing a permanent headquarters for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), and bringing Myanmar before the International Court of Justice to face allegations of genocide against the Rohingya. [CTI; AfCHPR Press Release: Declaration; BBC]
Germany is not the first country to initiate an investigation into crimes committed by those associated with Jammeh’s government. In 2017, Switzerland opened an investigation into crimes against humanity allegedly committed by former Gambian Minister of the Interior Ousman Sonko, and a Swiss court agreed to hold him in preventative detention until January 2020. [SWI] And, in June 2020, the United States indicted a man on torture charges of conspiring to commit torture against individuals who planned a coup against Jammeh’s government. [Jurist; HRW: Correa]
Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 coup, led a repressive regime until 2017, targeting opposition and minority groups in that time. [IJRC] Jammeh’s reign was marked by repressive treatment of opposition parties, journalists, and sexual minorities. See Human Rights Watch, State of Fear (2015). A failed coup in 2014 sparked more arbitrary arrests, detentions, and enforced disappearances of opposition party members involved in the coup and their relatives, journalists, as well as other human rights defenders. See Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2015/2016: The State of the World’s Human Rights (2016), 161-62.
Open elections in December 2016 resulted in the election of opposition candidate Adama Barrow, and hope for an end to years of torture, enforced disappearances, murder, sexual assault, and other human rights violations committed under Jammeh’s watch. [ACHPR Press Release: Election; HRW: Abuses] Jammeh initially conceded defeat but only agreed to step down only after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) prepared to send in troops and brokered an agreement that guaranteed “the dignity, respect, security and rights of former President Jammeh.” [Africa Renewal] He is believed to be living in exile in Equatorial Guinea. [BBC: Exile] Human rights organizations have welcomed positive developments under President Barrow, including efforts to ensure accountability for past abuses, but they have also expressed concern at ongoing rights violations across a range of issues. [Amnesty: Barrow Meeting] Despite initially agreeing to step down in January 2020, Barrow has now indicated he will stay in office until elections in 2021, when he will run again. [Guardian]
Transitional Justice Efforts
Since 2017, The Gambia has engaged in a transitional justice process to address human rights violations committed during Jammeh’s autocratic rule. In this context, transitional justice refers to “all the projects, initiatives and efforts a country and community looks to in order to move forward after a period of terrible violence and human rights violations [and] address the fact that widespread human rights violations cannot be ignored without the very likely chance that terrible violence will  occur again.” See TRRC, Understanding the TRRC. The creation of the TRRC is part of these transitional justice efforts. [TRIAL International] Other efforts include legislative and constitutional review processes aimed at restoring confidence in domestic institutions, as well as the creation of a national Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) and permanent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to address human rights violations. [ICTJ]
The TRRC is composed of 11 commissioners, four of whom are women, and a Secretariat. [IFEX; FOROYAA] The Secretariat, responsible for assisting the commissioners in achieving their objectives, consists of an Executive Secretary, a Deputy Executive Secretary, and a Director of Research and Investigations. See TRRC, Meet the Secretariat.
Its stated goals are to investigate human rights violations committed while Jammeh was in power, advance national reconciliation, educate individuals on peace and justice, deliver reparations, and determine the scope of future prosecutions or amnesties, among other aims. [ICTJ] Notably, the TRRC mandate does not include prosecutions, though its findings and investigations may result in future prosecutions. The TRRC’s mandate will last for an initial two-year period that may be extended by the President, and will focus on identifying an “impartial historical record” of the human rights abuses that took place from July 1994 to January 2017. See TRRC, How will the TRRC go about its work?.
The TRRC has allowed victims to come forward and has shed light on the Jammeh government’s abuses, the true scale of which is not yet known. [TRIAL International; ICTJ] In January 2019, the TRRC began broadcasting public hearings on YouTube, which many Gambians have welcomed and watched. [NPR; IFEX] As of January 2020, 188 witnesses have participated in hearings before the TRRC, including 51 women and 35 alleged perpetrators. See TRRC, Statement by the Chair, Dr. Lamin J. Sise, at the opening of the 11th Session of the TRRC’s public hearings. Public hearings are not courtroom proceedings, but rather public sessions where “victims and witnesses [have] an opportunity to present their own account of events to the Commission and to the country.” See TRRC, What are “public hearings”?.
Most recently, human rights groups have pushed for more accountability regarding the sexual assault and abuse of women during Jammeh’s rule. See ICTJ, Women’s Experiences of Dictatorship in the Gambia (2019). The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has found that the experiences of women have “not yet come to light or been publicly acknowledged.” See id. The ICTJ cites a culture of intimidation against women and impunity for human rights violations committed against women as factors that silence women’s voices, particularly with respect to sexual violence. See id. In October 2019, the TRRC held public hearings on sexual and gender-based violence against Gambian women, and many women testified that they had experienced physical or sexual violence; some accused Jammeh of sexual assault and rape. [Reuters; HRW: Women] The ICTJ report “presents the stories and viewpoints of women who are not comfortable giving public testimony because of numerous risk factors” and calls on the TRRC to “to seek alternatives to the public hearing format…so that women’s perspectives can be fully integrated the country’s reckoning with its troubled past.” See ICTJ, Women’s Experiences of Dictatorship in the Gambia.
Gambian authorities have initiated a small number of prosecutions but have declined to prosecute some high-profile abuses aired by the TRRC, indicating that future prosecutions may depend on the TRRC’s “final outcome” and the courts’ capacity. [AP; The New Humanitarian] In addition to pushing for trials in The Gambia, advocates and victims have sought the prosecution of former Gambian officials elsewhere, including in Ghana, Switzerland, and the United States [VOA; Just Security] The United States government has now charged Michael Correa, a former member of the armed unit known as the “Junglers,” with torture. [Justice Info]
In his 2019 visit to The Gambia, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence expressed concern that the government’s efforts to provide reparations and rehabilitation to victims were inadequate. [OHCHR: Visit] He also noted limitations in the government’s capacity (or will) to investigate and prosecute rights violations, to locate and identify human remains, to collect other evidence, and to make necessary legislative and policy reforms.
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