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Security forces stand next to the entrance of the Gambian high court in Banjul on December 5, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

(Nairobi) – Gambia’s government should act to prosecute those responsible for grave crimes committed during the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh. Fair trials are crucial for victims and their families and for building respect for the rule of law in the country.

In a March 6, 2017 letter to Attorney General and Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou, Human Rights Watch encouraged the new government of President Adama Barrow to develop a strategy detailing how it intends to hold to account those implicated in the arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances that were the hallmark of Jammeh’s rule.

“All Gambians deserve to see justice for the terrible crimes committed during Jammeh’s rule,” said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The new government needs to identify the concrete steps it will take to investigate past abuses and ensure fair trials.”

Barrow defeated Jammeh in the December 2016 elections and was sworn in on January 19, two days before Jammeh finally stepped down under threat of a regional military intervention. Jammeh went into exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Since taking office, Barrow’s government has released dozens of political prisoners and has reversed Gambia’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. Barrow has promised that victims of the Jammeh era will “get justice.” But while the government has announced plans for a truth and reconciliation commission, it has yet to say how it will conduct judicial investigations into past crimes.

During Jammeh’s rule, Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of torture survivors, former detainees, and family members of Gambians killed or forcibly disappeared, including people targeted as long ago as 1996 and as recently as January 2017. Many described the government’s failure to investigate and prosecute abusive officials.

Tambadou told Human Rights Watch by email on April 20:

We want to ensure first and foremost that there is social cohesion and national reconciliation; to establish the truth and document an accurate historical record of past abuses in order to learn appropriate lessons and prevent recurrence; and to rebuild our administration of justice system in order to ensure not only prosecutions should it be required but also safeguard the fair trial rights of the accused in accordance with minimum standards of international human rights norms.

He said in March that, until his ministry has the necessary capacity and resources, “no new criminal cases involving crimes allegedly committed by the former government will be handled.” Tambadou had earlier criticized the police for the arrest of nine former intelligence officials for the alleged murder of opposition activist Solo Sandeng in April 2016, stating that it occurred without his knowledge and that “criminal investigations must never be rushed.” The prosecution has since asked for more time to collect evidence in the case, while the accused remain in custody.

Human Rights Watch identified key reforms needed to bolster the capacity, independence, and impartiality of the justice system, which was both neglected and politicized during Jammeh’s time in power. Priorities include establishing an independent judiciary; creating a system to protect witnesses and judges; ensuring that accused receive access to effective legal representation; and identifying ways to incorporate victim participation into the proceedings, in addition to serving as witnesses.

The government should also support efforts by third countries to bring universal jurisdiction cases against Jammeh-era officials living outside of Gambia, Human Rights Watch said. Switzerland has already arrested and charged former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko with crimes against humanity for his role in torture during Jammeh’s time in power.

“The Barrow government has expressed a commitment to justice for Jammeh-era crimes,” Wormington said. “Now they need to promptly develop a strategy to ensure victims and their families have their day in court.”

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