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Calls for Justice Continue Six Years After Senegal Ferry Disaster

The government of Senegal is angry over arrest warrants issued by a French judge against senior Senegalese officials in connection with a ferry disaster off the West African coast. Senegalese say the French judge acted outside his jurisdiction, but families of the victims approve saying he may provide the justice that has not been rendered in Senegal. Correspondent Scott Bobb filed this report from Dakar.

Janis Gomes is pounding pepper for the family lunch in the cramped kitchen of her home in a poor suburb of Dakar.

She says life is hard, prices are high and there is no one to help her since her husband died in the sinking of the Senegalese ferry, La Joola, six years ago. The government has refused to pay her compensation because she was married in a traditional ceremony and has no legal proof of the union.

Margareth Diouf is another widow of the La Joola disaster who is struggling to collect her compensation.

She says her late husband left five children all of whom are in school, one in university. But he had a second wife and because of the legal complexities neither of them has collected.

The La Joola ferry sank six years ago in stormy seas off the coast of neighboring Gambia. Official figures say the ferry, which was licensed to carry 550 passengers, was carrying 2,000 people. Only 64 survived, making it one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history.

The Senegalese government ordered $22,000 in compensation to be paid to the families of each victim. But many family members, often illiterate spouses from rural areas, have been unable to meet the strict administrative requirements to collect.

Nassardine Aldara, who lost four children in the accident, says many family members are still angry.

He says of all the promises made by the Senegalese government only the issue of compensation has made progress. And some families refused to accept that because they felt justice had not been rendered.

Following the incident, the Senegalese government fired several officials but no one was prosecuted and the case was closed one year later.

The ferry also carried foreigners from other nations, including 22 people of French nationality.

Some of these families filed a case in France. French judge Jean Wilfried Noel in September issued international arrest warrants against nine senior Senegalese officials, including a former prime minister, transportation minister and former head of the armed forces. The warrants charged them with negligent manslaughter and failure to help people in danger.

The head of an association of families of the victims, Idrissa Diallo, lost three children in the accident. He received compensation, though under protest, but notes that less than half of the bodies were recovered and many families demand closure.

He says the Senegalese government has not fulfilled a promise to build a shrine to the victims but says the families will continue to struggle for a memorial because it is their duty.

Senegalese officials all the way up to the president were angered by the French warrants saying they represented undue interference in Senegalese law. The French government said it could not intervene in a legal case, straining relations between the two countries.

In response, a Senegalese judge has issued an arrest warrant for the French judge on charges of abuse of authority.

Many Senegalese agree with their government but family members of victims like Diallo support the French judge. They say the moral debt from the disaster has not been paid and foreign courts may provide the justice they feel has been denied in their home country.