The West African state of The Gambia on Monday launched an 11-member truth commission tasked with shedding light on summary executions, disappearances, torture, rape and other crimes under regime of ousted dictator Yahya Jammeh.
“Today marks … the beginning of the much-anticipated mechanism that is expected to ensure healing, justice and proper documentation of the rights violations and abuses that took place in the previous regime,” the office of his successor, President Adama Barrow, said in a tweet.
Inspired by South Africa’s investigation into the apartheid era, the commission will hold witness hearings into Jammeh’s 22-year era of oppression, opening the way to prosecuting those responsible and offering victims and their relatives the hope of closure.
“Gambians who were tortured or raped in prison, who were shot for peacefully demonstrating, who were forced into Jammeh’s phony HIV ‘treatment’ programmes, whose family members were killed or who were targeted in literal witch hunts will all be able to come forward,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“We know so much more today about the crimes of Jammeh’s government than we did a year ago — and when the truth commission is finished hearing from all the victims we should have a complete picture.”
The process, he hoped, marked the first step to “holding Yahya Jammeh and his henchmen to account.”
Jammeh came to power in a military coup in 1994, installing a structure of oppression and corruption that touched nearly every part of Gambian society.
Dissidents and journalists were picked up and tortured by the dreaded National Intelligence Agency (NIA). An ultra-loyal death squad called the Junglers carried out summary killings, including the alleged murder of scores of West African migrants.
Jammeh’s reign began to crumble in December 2016, when he dramatically lost elections to opposition leader Adama Barrow.
He refused to step down, but was eventually forced out after other West African countries intervened militarily and diplomatically, and flew into self-imposed exile in Equatorial Guinea.
Created under an act of parliament, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) aims at using openness and a court-like approach to investigate over two years how abuse began and became systemic and the impacts it had.
The Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations, an NGO set up by victims and relatives of victims, says it has already documented hundreds of cases.
But the full extent of abuse may never be known and whether Jammeh himself will be put in the dock is far from clear.
The commission will be empowered to advise prosecution of perpetrators and recommend financial compensation to victims.
Its members are drawn from all the major regions, its five main ethnic groups and two religions, led by a retired UN diplomat, Lamin Sise.
Gender-based violence is expected to be a major theme of its mission, and four of the commissioners are women, on of whom is Sise’s deputy chair.
© Agence France-Presse