Side of History: Gambians Seek Justice After Jammeh's Fall

Banjul — A year ago, opposition activist Solo Sandeng led the first march in over decade to call for free elections in Gambia. Although the demonstration was a catalyst for the ouster of autocrat Yahya Jammeh, it cost Sandeng his life.

The court case into his death has now become the first prosecution trial under Gambia's new elected government for the human rights violations perpetrated during Jammeh's 22-year reign.

"The Sandeng case is not only politically the match that lit the fire, it really brought home the injustices of the regime," said Aziz Bensouda of the Gambia Bar Association. "It's one of the cases where we have a lot more detail than in the past, and it will really set the tone [of future human rights cases]."
Gambians Seeking Justice

A key prosecution witness, Nogoi Njie, a member of Sandeng's United Democratic Party, told IRIN how she and other UDP activists were arrested on 14 April as they marched at Westfield Junction, a busy roundabout in the centre of the sprawling market town Serrekunda.

In her living room, Njie, a matronly woman in her early 50s, said she was interrogated at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters in Banjul over her political allegiance and repeatedly beaten by masked men known as the Jungulars - Jammeh's personal squad of soldiers who tortured and killed on his orders.

In one room, she recalled seeing a noose hanging from the ceiling, before she was ordered to undress to her underwear, her head covered in a nylon bag. "They told me if I don't lie down they can hang me by the neck and nobody will know. They started to beat me. The blood was coming out all over my body. I almost lost my life," she said.

Later she found herself in the same room as Sandeng. The 57-year-old was naked, his body already swollen and bleeding.

He was beaten again and fell to the floor. She recounted what she believes were his last moments alive: "He called my name 'Nogoi, Nogoi'." While lying on the ground, Njie said she heard him make a sound, which she re-enacted as a faint, strangled breath.

"I called his name so many times and he didn't answer me. And I cried because I'm very sorry for that man, he's a family man. And he's a very strong man, and they killed him like this."

The demand for justice
Change in Gambia began when Jammeh spectacularly lost an election in December to now President Adama Barrow. But he refused to accept the result, and only stepped down after West African leaders sent in troops to force him into exile.

There is now a powerful demand for justice as the country transitions from dictatorship to democracy. In February, Interior Minister Mai Fatty instigated the arrests of former NIA chief Yankuba Badjie, ex-operations director Saikou Omar Jeng, along with seven other NIA operatives, charging them with Sandeng's murder.

But the trial is raising some difficult questions over the direction Gambia's quest for justice should take, and the implications for its new-found democracy.

Opinion is divided over whether criminal prosecutions should proceed before the government's promised truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) is established. The commission's goal is to encourage people to confess the crimes they committed, and for victims to air the injustices they suffered.

Last month, Justice Minister Ba Tambadou announced that the commission will begin hearings in September. For some critics, waiting until the TRC process begins would mean delaying the day of reckoning for those responsible for the worst abuses.

They, like journalist Alhagie Jobe, who was tortured at the NIA and imprisoned for 18 months, want to see justice delivered swiftly through the courts.

"These people are the enablers of Jammeh and contributed to the killing of not only Solo Sandeng, but many other innocent people and today their families are crying. There was no justice for the last two decades."

But some legal experts are concerned the Sandeng case is being rushed to court without adequate planning and investigation. The risk is that defendants could be acquitted or prosecuted on a lesser charge, with implications for future human rights cases. - Online Sources

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