Jammeh-era victims between relief and skepticism after conviction of ex-Gambian spies

When the Gambian justice found five former intelligence service officials guilty of the murder of his father, Muhammed Sandeng felt something unprecedented, between “plenitude and relief”.

Ebrima Solo Sandeng, figure of the United Democratic Party (UDP) under the dictatorship of ex-president Yahya Jammeh, died in custody in April 2016 at the premises of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

The torture and murder of this activist, two days after his arrest during a demonstration, had galvanized the opposition, until then weak and divided, and precipitated the fall of the dictator who had ruled the Gambia since 1994.

On Wednesday, after a five-year trial, the Banjul High Court handed down the death sentence against former NIA chief Yankuba Badjie, former operations chief Sheikh Omar Jeng and three other ex-employees of this intelligence service, Babacarr Sallah, Lamin Darboe and Tamba Mansary.

Their sentences will however be converted to life imprisonment as The Gambia has adopted a moratorium on executions.

“We were present throughout the preliminary hearings, and listening to all of this was not easy – it was painful, it made us relive most of the trauma,” the young Sandeng told AFP today. 25 years old. “Perseverance paid off.”

– The beginning of the end” –

Witnesses told how men took turns beating him in police custody “until his whole body bled and blood came out of his head”.

According to Abdoulie Fatty, a Gambian lawyer, this case marked “the beginning of the end” for the dictator, accused of having orchestrated a litany of crimes during his 22 years in power, between enforced disappearances, assassinations, rapes or harassment of the hurry.

The murder of Ebrima Solo Sandeng notably encouraged the political opposition to unite behind Adama Barrow, who defeated Yahya Jammeh in the December 2016 elections.

As for the five officials sentenced this week, they “symbolized the dictatorship of Jammeh – the NIA symbolized the dictatorship of Jammeh”, believes Me Fatty.

The agency’s former boss, Yankuba Badjie, was “probably the second most powerful person in the country”, he says.

These convictions represent an important step towards the restoration of the truth, according to several other victims of the Jammeh era who are eagerly awaiting justice, for all.

“For me, as a victim, it means a lot,” said Isatou Jammeh, whose own father – Yahya Jammeh’s brother – was murdered for daring to challenge the ex-president.

“To see them sentenced means that there is a rule of law and serves as an example for all those who have committed horrible crimes,” she added.

But the Solo Sandeng case is an exception: it is so far one of only two trials that has been held in connection with the atrocities committed under the Jammeh regime.

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After its opening, the Ministry of Justice chose to await the findings of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) before launching further investigations.

“The TRRC is not a judicial body and it is the state’s responsibility to carry out prompt and impartial investigations on its side,” said Nana-Jo N’dow, an activist whose father disappeared in 2013.

– “We will have it” –

In May, after the release of the TRRC’s final report, the government promised to prosecute ex-president Yahya Jammeh, who lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea, and more than 200 others accused of human rights abuses.

For victims’ groups, who are skeptical, these promises remain unclear. “Meanwhile, Jammeh’s allies occupy positions of power in The Gambia,” said Nana-Jo N’dow.

President Barrow, re-elected in December, formed a political alliance with Jammeh’s former party last year and has since appointed two of his loyalists as speaker and deputy speaker of parliament.

At the end of May, Mr Barrow visited Equatorial Guinea, but there was little mention of Jammeh during his talks with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, according to a government spokesman.

The state says it has hired foreign and Gambian lawyers to work on the ex-president’s trial, and in mid-June the Justice Ministry announced that all officials named in the TRRC report would be suspended. .

At the end of June, however, the attorney general told a parliamentary committee that the government did not currently have the financial resources to implement the committee’s recommendations.

“There is still a lot to do in terms of security reforms and institutional reforms,” sighs Muhammed Sandeng. But he is sure, Jammeh will end up paying: “it is obvious that justice will catch up with him and sooner or later, we will have him”.

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