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Gambia Weighs Justice Versus Moving On

  • Katarina Hoije

Tijan Barrow was arrested in Gambia for printing #Gambiahasdecided t-shirts.

As the debate continues in Gambia over how to address alleged abuses under ex-president Yahya Jammeh's regime, Tijan Barrow is back at work at his printing shop.

His left eye is still swollen and he has a slight limp. Two weeks ago, soldiers burst in and beat him with their guns before throwing him in a cell at the National Intelligence Agency.

They said his crime was that he had been printing t-shirts for the opposition.

“It was very terrible that day because I did not think I would be back home safe, Barrow said. “I thought they were going to kill me because they said that before. They said they were going to kill me.”

Time to move on

Barrow says he will not pursue any legal action related to his illegal detention. He says Gambia needs to move on now that Jammeh is gone.

One of President Adama Barrow's first acts after being sworn in earlier this month was to order the release of all people detained without a charge or conviction. Hundreds of people have flooded out of the state prison and intelligence agency headquarters.

Rights groups accuse Jammeh of presiding over ruthless oppression during his 22 years in power, including torture, forced disappearances and other abuses.

The question now is how best to heal the nation.

Opposition leader Oussainou Darboe, who was arrested last year and released last week, said justice can be cathartic.

“Those suspicious of each other, you clear those suspicions and we move forward as Gambians for the development of our country,” Darboe said.

Much to consider

Gambian lawyer Aziz Bensouda is also considering the question.

“There seem to be a very clear case for the perpetrators, who seem to be state-employed actors or persons affiliated to the state, or at least had access to state facilities that carried out these actions,” Bensouda said. “So there is a criminal case to answer.”

But he says building cases could be difficult.

"Wounds heal. People run away. Witnesses run away,” Bensouda said. “Twenty-two years is a long time and there has been comparatively little recorded data on these things."

A friend of Tijan Barrow, left, wears one of Barrow's more popular t-shirts.
A friend of Tijan Barrow, left, wears one of Barrow's more popular t-shirts.

Former officials arrested

There have been some high level arrests. Last week, Swiss authorities detained Gambia's former interior minister Ousmane Sonko as he sought asylum. Sonko is accused of torture-related crimes in Gambia as head of police and one of the longest-serving members of Jammeh's regime.

Senegal arrested Gambia's former prison boss, General Bora Colley, as he tried to escape to Guinea-Bissau. It is not clear what will happen to the two men, whether they will be sent back to Gambia.

President Barrow has pledged to reform the security services and organize a truth and reconciliation committee modeled on the one in South Africa post-apartheid. But he has declined to say whether the state will pursue any prosecutions.

Government looking for answers

Presidential spokesman, Hallifa Sallah, says for now the government is on a fact-finding mission, urging Gambians to report missing and detained people.

“In a situation where people are also asking for development to take place, resources to be put to address concerns, would it be much better to use those resources to compensate the victims rather than just proceed in another process? Sallah said. “I think these are the issues he has looked at as a head of state.”

VOA spoke to many Gambians who share that pragmatic approach. They want compensation. They want back their old jobs and their property that they say were taken under Jammeh. And most importantly, they want their relatives freed and the truth about those will never come home.

Meanwhile, ex-president Yahya Jammeh is beginning his life as an exile in Equatorial Guinea. The country is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. Legal experts say Jammeh may well be beyond the reach of Gambian or international justice.

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