'The public are also putting pressure on the government for justice to happen now.'
Victims of human rights abuses under former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh are questioning whether they will ever get justice, after at least four members of a notorious hit squad were freed despite having confessed to jointly killing more than 50 people.
The hit squad members, known as the Junglers, appeared before Gambia's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) at the end of July. Immaculately dressed in their green Gambian army camouflage uniforms and berets, they gave first-hand accounts of their involvement in some of the most high-profile extra-judicial killings of Jammeh's 22-year rule.
Incidents included the gunning down of prominent journalist and regime critic Deyda Hydara in December 2004; the massacre in 2005 of around 56 West African migrants mistaken for mercenaries; the assassination of Jammeh's cousin, Haruna Jammeh; and the murder and dismemberment of Alhagie Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, two American-Gambian citizens who had returned to Gambia to start a business but who disappeared in 2013.
Jammeh's reign was characterised by enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture of perceived opponents, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite a population of only two million, Gambians have featured heavily among those trying to migrate to Europe - a consequence of both repression and a lack of opportunities at home.
For the families of the victims, hearing the testimonies of the alleged perpetrators has been a painful but pivotal moment as the three-year anniversary of Jammeh's overthrow approaches, and as pressure to deliver positive change grows on Jammeh's successor, Adama Barrow.
"I knew well before that my father was killed, but the way he was killed and the people who did it, that was the main thing I wanted to know," said Ebrima Jammeh, who watched the testimonies on YouTube from his home in Scotland.
His father, Haruna Jammeh, an older cousin of the former president, had been strangled to death by at least two of the Junglers who testified.
"Hearing the truth was important to all of us," Ebrima Jammeh told The New Humanitarian. "It doesn't take away the burden, but it gives you relief in your heart."
Killers walk free
What the victims' families didn't know at the time was that the justice minister and attorney general, Aboubacarr Tambadou, had struck a deal with the Junglers, freeing them from military detention on condition they cooperated with the truth commission.
Malick Jatta, Omar Jallow, Amadou Badgie, and Pa Ousman Sanneh were released in August. Two more Junglers remain in custody, one of whom is believed not to be cooperating with the authorities.
The victims' families were astounded by the releases, which came just two weeks after the hearings. Some only found out about them on TV.
"The Junglers had just confessed to gruesome murders. We were angry and shocked that they would walk free. After hearing all these confessions, we feel betrayed," said Baba Hydara, Deyda Hydara's son, who has followed in his father's footsteps as a newspaper editor.
"All along the government is saying the TRRC is victim-led, but we were not consulted. We all appealed the decision, but in vain - the attorney general had already made his decision."
Tambadou also appeared to have made the decision without consulting TRRC Executive Secretary Baba Galleh Jallow, according to members of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations who met Jallow afterwards to discuss their concerns. If true, this would ring alarm bells over the independence and impartiality of the process.
Tambadou justified the release by saying it was unlawful to keep the Junglers in detention for more than two years without charge. But others argue they could have been kept in custody on lesser charges.
The government has said from the outset that prosecutions would have to wait until the two-year-old truth commission had completed its work. The commission will then make recommendations for reconciliations and prosecutions in a final report.
"We cannot therefore pre-empt the work of the TRRC by taking action against anyone at this stage," Tambadou said in a press conference, adding that he understood this would be a "bitter pill to swallow" for victims and their families.
But he was also in a bind because other alleged perpetrators had been freed from state custody after testifying at the truth commission.
Although he agreed the Junglers were a "special category of perpetrator", Tambadou argued that treating them differently could disincentivise those in a similar position from telling the truth.
The strategy could pay off in the end, as the Junglers' testimonies have already yielded crucial evidence about the chain of command that has shown that orders to kill came directly from Jammeh himself. Their cooperation with the truth commission could eventually lead to his extradition from exile in Equatorial Guinea and a trial.
The flipside is that victims, especially those whose cases are directly implicated in the Junglers' release, are viewing the truth commission with deepening cynicism and mistrust. They question whether the commission is focusing too much on high-profile confessions at the expense of victims' rights.
"It is not about showing how 'successful' the TRRC is by having perpetrators testify, it is about justice," said Nana-Jo Ndow, whose father was disappeared in 2013. One of four released Junglers, Omar Jallow, has been implicated in his murder.
Ndow believes there is a lack of political will to tackle investigations into the Junglers' crimes. "The release of the Junglers is a clear case of selective justice and the latest in a long series of delaying tactics by the government," she said, pointing to inconsistencies in the government's transitional justice approach.
Tambadou has stated on several occasions that Gambia doesn't have the judicial capacity to put the Junglers on trial.
However, since the hearings began, three people who appeared before the TRRC have been charged with murder, including Yankuba Touray, who was part of Jammeh's military junta.
The Junglers' shocking revelations and subsequent release has sparked a broader public debate about Gambia's transitional justice approach.
"I don't think the government had envisaged the truth to come out so blatantly and so gruesomely," said Salieu Taal, president of the Gambia Bar Association. "The public are also putting pressure on the government for justice to happen now."
Many Gambians feel that Barrow's government has not managed to disentangle the state from its authoritarian past. If anything, Barrow has increasingly surrounded himself with members of Jammeh's government: two more former ministers were re-appointed in the latest cabinet reshuffle in August.
Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian who works for the civil society grantmaking body Open Society Foundation in South Africa, believes the challenges now emerging around the transitional justice process are down to an administration that is locked into survival mode.
"Barrow isn't looking beyond the 2021 election," he said. "That's now causing all sorts of problems." Barrow has alienated himself from his coalition through several divisive cabinet reshuffles, and there is widespread speculation he is trying to develop support among Jammeh's APRC party and other loyalists.
"The coalition has fallen apart. The youths hate Barrow. He is totally exposed," Grey-Johnson said.
The Junglers have not been granted amnesty; they could still face prosecution at the end of the truth commission.
But victims see it differently.
"This is release without conditions," said Baba Hydara. "They are free to do whatever they want. To us it feels like amnesty. I don't think the justice part will happen because in my opinion the government is concentrating on reconciliation and truth."
Truth on its own will never be enough for many of the victims. "I can never forgive what they did. I want to see the released Junglers behind bars. I cannot accept someone who killed my dad walking free," said Ebrima Jammeh.
"My real concern is what happens if these people just flee," said Reed Brody, a legal counsel for Human Rights Watch who is working with victims on the Jammeh2Justice campaign to see the ex-president's extradition and trial. "They would not only escape justice, but they are also the direct evidence that victims have against Yahya Jammeh."