/ 20 July 2019

Yes, victims can bring Gambia’s dictator to justice

Gambia's former president Yahya Jammeh.
Gambia's former president Yahya Jammeh. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)



In an article for The Conversation, republished by the Mail & Guardian, Sophie Gallop (“Despite mounting abuse claims, here’s why Jammeh is unlikely to face justice soon”) lists atrocities attributed to the former dictator of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who now lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Her litany includes political killings, torture, and most recently, after a Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International investigation I led, rape and sexual abuse.

But, Gallop concludes, “pursuing legal consequences against Jammeh is likely to prove very difficult, if not impossible.” Why? Because, she notes, “Equatorial Guinea is not a signatory to the Rome Statute” that created the International Criminal Court, leaving Jammeh’s fate in the hands of fellow despot Teodoro Obiang, with whom he has recently been partying it up.

Jammeh’s victims, with whom I work, are not trying to send him to the ICC, however. They want to see him prosecuted back home in Gambia or in one of the nearby countries whose citizens he also victimized. And Equatorial Guinea happens to be a party to the UN Convention against Torture, which requires that states “extradite or prosecute “ alleged torturers found on their territory. This is the clause that underpinned the 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom, and the trial and conviction in Senegal of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré.

The Habré case, on which I also worked, is illustrative of what can happen here. Habré, accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture, was overthrown in 1990 and fled to Senegal. Inspired by Pinochet’s arrest, his victims filed a case in Senegal and got him arrested there in 2000. Then Abdoulaye Wade was elected president of Senegal, had the case dismissed, and vowed that Habré would “never” be prosecuted in Senegal. The victims, led by a torture survivor, Souleymane Guengueng , did not give up however, and campaigned relentlessly. Finally, in 2012, the International Court of Justice ruled that Senegal had violated its duty to “extradite or prosecute, “ and ordered it to bring Habré to justice “without further delay.” By then, the newly elected president of Senegal, Macky Sall, had announced that he would move forward with the trial.

Determined victims and their West African and international allies also ran a successful “Campaign Against Impunity” to help persuade Nigeria in 2006 to hand over former Liberian president Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone after giving him safe haven for three years. The UN-backed court convicted Taylor in 2012 of working together with rebel groups to commit atrocities during that country’s civil war.

Jammeh’s victims are similarly motivated. “We will do whatever it takes in the pursuit of justice, no matter how long it takes,” says Fatoumatta Sandeng, spokesperson for the “Jammeh2Justice” campaign. She is the daughter of opposition leader Solo Sandeng, whose murder in April 2016 galvanized opposition to Jammeh’s rule.

Nana-Jo N’dow, whose father, Saul Ndow, a dissident businessman forcibly disappeared from Senegal and presumed to have been brought to Gambia and killed, says “we want answers and we want justice and we shall not give up until those responsible are held accountable.” Toufah Jallow, the woman who this month described her rape by Jammeh, is fighting to see Jammeh in a room again: “a courtroom this time.”

Gambian President Adama Barrow has said that he will await the report of the country’s truth commission before pursuing Jammeh’s possible extradition from Equatorial Guinea. It’s going to take a lot of heavy political lifting, but Gambia will probably not be the only country applying pressure. Ghana is weighing reopening its investigation into the July 2005 massacre in Gambia of approximately 56 migrants, including 44 Ghanaians as well as Nigerians, Togolese, Senegalese and Ivoirians. Its move followed a May 2018 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL that revealed that the migrants were murdered by the “Junglers,” a death squad reporting to Jammeh.

Senegal, whose troops helped persuade Jammeh to leave after he refused to accept his December 2016 election defeat, and was fed up with Jammeh’s support for Casamance rebels, presumably would be happy to see Jammeh behind bars and prevented from making mischief.

It is too early to say what will happen. But, as the Habré case showed, victims with tenacity and perseverance can actually create the political conditions to bring their dictator to court, even when the first answer is “never.”

Reed Brody is Counsel for Human Rights Watch, where he assists atrocity victims who are fighting for justice.