By Omar Bah
The special adviser to the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has said if the Gambia government is “unwilling or unable to prosecute Jammeh-era crimes, the ICC in conformity with the principle of complementarity in international criminal law may do its part in investigating and prosecuting those most responsible.”
Addressing an international conference of human rights lawyers and activists discussing the implementation of Gambia’s TRRC recommendations on prosecution, Adama Dieng said: “Legal responsibility for prosecuting these crimes rests in the first instance with the government of the Gambia. We hope and we expect that the Gambia will be able to effectively prosecute these crimes either alone or with the support of regional or international partners.
“However, whether it is in The Gambia, or another African country, before a special court, or at the ICC, justice must happen and justice will happen.”
The Senegalese-born lawyer, who was addressing the meeting via a video link from his base at The Hague, added: “Impunity is not an option in The Gambia.”
Another speaker, a former United States ambassador –at-large for war crimes issues Stephen Rapp, said: “A future court should be as Gambian as possible but it could have international elements as necessary.”
The president of Liberia National Bar Association, Tiawan Gongloe, who was invited to share the Liberian experience, said: “If the perpetrators are not held accountable, others will repeat what they have done or even do worse.” He said perpetrators never admit their wrongs.
“Even if five people testify against them they will insist that it didn’t happen. They always justify,” he said.
Gongloe, himself a survivor of torture, said “no one has the authority to tell a victim to forgive. To say that ‘let bygones be bygones’ is to side with the perpetrators”. Gongloe added that “accountability is a question of political will” and called on Gambians to vote in the upcoming election for candidates who promised accountability.
He explained that Liberia’s failure, following two brutal civil wars, to implement the 2009 recommendation of a truth commission to establish an extraordinary criminal court had prejudiced his country’s progress.
The president of the Gambia Bar Association, Salieu Taal said “any recommendations by the TRRC for the prosecution of abusive officials should be followed by a process of criminal accountability”.
Lawyer Taal, who recommended for a regional-backed hybrid court to try the Jammeh-era crimes, said Gambians “must own the process,” while adding that internationalisation could provide more capacity and give victims a greater role in trials.
Fatou Jagne-Senghore, executive director of Article 19 West Africa, argued: “Without accountability, healing and reconciliation will be illusory and the wounds will remain open in The Gambia”. She queried that “many alleged perpetrators continue to hold senior public offices.”
Howard Varney of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), who has worked with truth commissions in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste, cited a forthcoming ICTJ report which, he said, showed that only countries which entrusted atrocity cases “to dedicated investigative and prosecutorial mechanisms delivered meaningful justice to victims of serious crimes.”
President of the Chadian Association of Victims Clément Abaifouta, who was forced to dig graves for many of his co-detainees when he himself was a prisoner, said: “If Hissène Habré could be brought to justice, Yahya Jammeh can be brought to justice too. Let us together build an Africa of justice, an Africa free of dictators.”
Emmanuel Daniel Joof, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, closed the meeting with a plea for justice. “The slogan ‘never again’ is rubbish without prosecuting those who bear the greatest responsibilities for gross human rights violations.”