Gambia’s Culture Of Impunity Blamed on Judicial Interference

A regional Amnesty International Campaigner (AI) has blamed the Gambia’s culture on lack of independence of the country’s judiciary.

 François Patuel, AI West Africa Team-Campaigner based in Senegal, used an exclusive interview with journalist Abdoulie John to call for justice for the victims of the April 2000 student massacre.  The tragedy, which claimed more than a dozen lives, remained unsolved as the victims have been denied justice. This was why voices have been raised – nationally and internationally – calling for the punishment of those responsible for the heinous crimes. Mr. Patuel also thinks there is need to end the culture of impunity that has become the hallmark of President Yahya Jammeh’s regime. Please read on…

As Gambians commemorate the 14th anniversary of the April 2000 student massacre, calls for justice continue to deepen. From the campaigner’s point of view what should be done is to reap more support for the survivors and remind the people to continue demanding justice from the Jammeh regime?

The Gambian authorities’ failure to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the killing of 14 students in April 2000 exemplifies their attitude towards truth and justice. At the time, Amnesty
International expressed concerns that supporting impunity in the interests of “national reconciliation” was short-sighted and would not prevent further violations by members of the security forces. Sadly, we were too right. Since then, the security forces have continued to subject people leaving in Gambia, particularly human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents to intimidation, harassment, death threats, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and arbitrary executions.

The government has made no progress in implementing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice judgments in the cases of journalists Ebrima Manneh and Musa Saidykhan.

2014 provides two great opportunities to call for human rights change in Gambia: the 20th anniversary of President Yahya Jammeh rise to power in July and the assessment of the human rights record of Gambia by the United Nations through the Universal Periodic Review process in
October/November 2014. As these two key moments approach, civil society in and outside of Gambia and the international community should mobilise to send a clear message to the Gambian authorities that it their responsibility to ensure that the security forces protect people’s human rights and to investigate all allegations of human rights violations and hold the individuals suspected to be responsible to account.

Through the Indemnity Act, the Gambian government has absolved those involved of their alleged crimes. Could the international justice system (i.e the ICC) be a salutary alternative for the victims?

It was intended that the Indemnity Act would be backdated in order to give immunity to the security forces responsible for shooting the students. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the new law did not apply to the security forces since it was passed after the incident took place. Despite the ruling, no action was subsequently taken to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice.

One of the factors which may explain the culture of impunity in Gambia’s institutions is the lack of independence of the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary remains compromised due to frequent interference by the executive, including by removing and appointing judges and senior staff in the judiciary without consultation with the Judicial Service Commission. In 2013 alone, the government dismissed three chief justices.

Several civil society organizations and victims of human rights violations have approached the ECOWAS Court which has the competence to hear individual complaints, probably with the feeling that they could not seek justice at home.

It is going be 20 years since President Yahya Jammeh rose to power. The list of people calling for truth and justice for the violations committed under his rule continue to increase and some are now seeking justice abroad. As he reflects on his achievements, is this what he wants to be remembered for?

Any sense that the security forces are above the law is a serious threat to human rights. The Gambian authorities should put in place measures to safeguard the independence of the judiciary to ensure it is equipped to investigate cases of human rights violations and to bring perpetrators to justice.

*François Patuel is a West Africa Team – Campaigner, Amnesty of International Regional Office in Dakar, Senegal.


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