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First German Trial on Crimes in Gambia Opens

Victims Champion Accountability for the Crimes

Victims and representatives from non-governmental organizations stand in front of the Celle Higher Regional Court in Celle, Germany. © 2022 Whitney-Martina Nosakhare/Human Rights Watch

Yesterday, the trial against Gambian citizen Bai L., accused of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the “death squad” created by former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, opened in a court in the German city of Celle.

Outside, on the courthouse steps, stood the son and two daughters of men killed during Jammeh’s rule. They, together with members of nongovernmental organizations, held up a banner saying, in English, “Yahya Jammeh and his accomplices to justice”.

Jammeh’s 22-year rule in Gambia was marked by widespread abuses, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention.

Victims, trial observers, and others attended yesterday’s proceedings. The attorney-general read the indictment, stating that Bai L. is charged with three counts of crimes against humanity. He is accused of being a driver for a “death squad” that was involved in two murders and one attempted murder.

Victims have been the driving force behind this trial, and those at the courthouse said the proceedings finally kickstarted what they spent years fighting for. Some observers sent photos and videos from the courthouse to family and friends in Germany and Gambia. They wanted to make sure people know what is going on in Celle.

Germany has been a leader in conducting prosecutions on the basis of universal jurisdiction, or prosecuting serious crimes regardless of where they were committed or the nationality of the perpetrators or victims. Unfortunately, interpretation from German into Wolof, the widely spoken language in Gambia, was only available for the formal parties to the trial and accredited journalists. People who speak little or no German could not follow what was unfolding.

Germany should provide interpretation to those who need it. Additionally, there has been no outreach to Gambian communities about the trial. This is disappointing, as research by Human Rights Watch and others has shown that the impact of accountability efforts on affected communities strongly correlates to outreach efforts.

The Gambian Ministry of Justice welcomed the trial and reiterated its commitment to the transitional justice process in Gambia. The government should deliver on that commitment by taking steps to ensure that Jammeh, who lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea, and others implicated in the crimes are brought to justice.

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