Late July a few former members of the Junglers, a group of hitmen under the military regime, testified before the Truth, reconciliation and reparations Commission in Gambia. They confessed to many killings. Within days, their release from prison was ordered by the Minister of Justice. And that didn’t go down well with some of the victims.
Written on the wall behind the eleven members of Gambia’s Truth, reconciliation and reparations Commission (TRRC) is “Truth shall set you free.” And the truth so did for confessed killer Malick Jatta, who was released from prison after he testified before the TRRC late July and admitted participating in several killing including the 2004 murder of journalist Deyda Hydara.
After the fall of military dictator Yahya Jammeh in January 2017, Gambians chose a truth commission over criminal justice. Some are now questioning if this is the ideal path to deal with the country’s brutal past. “It is not clear to me what will happen in this country anymore. The TRRC does not make sense anymore if you leave mass murderers in the street,” said Baba Hydara, the son of the slain journalist.
After the death of his father, Baba Hydara became an activist. For several years he and his family have dedicated the top right corner of The Point newspaper, co-founded by his father, to the question “who killed Deyda Hydara?”. Until Jatta’s testimony, no answer to the question printed daily had come.
On the day Jatta testified, Baba Hydara was invited to the TRRC by the Commission’s Lead Counsel Essa Faal. “The lead counsel said a testimony will be made about the death of my dad,” Baba Hydara told JusticeInfo. However, he declined to be present at the hearing. “I do not know what I will do if I am there. So it is better I stay away,” said Baba Hydara. Instead he went to Banjul with Pap Saine, the co-founder of The Point, to attend a business meeting. He was on his way back when Jatta, a former member of the Junglers, Jammeh’s hitmen, was on the radio telling how they killed his father. “The rage was indescribable,” said Hydara. “I went home and stopped answering my phone calls.” It wasn’t only him. Hydara said that within his family each one of them spent that day alone, reflecting.
The trade-off behind the Junglers’ release
On August 2, a leaked letter addressed to the Gambia’s Defence Ministry from the Justice Ministry indicated that the Junglers currently in jail were to be freed. The Ministry said the confessed killers have agreed to testify in any future case that may be of interest to the state.
The rage in the country upon the leak was palpable. Social media pages bust with angry comments. This forced Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou into a press conference. He said the release must not be misconstrued with amnesty for the Junglers. He said the Junglers were truthful to the Commission and pouncing on them would scare potential witnesses. Tambadou asked the victims’ families to give the Commission time to do its work and recommend the prosecution of some individuals.
But Baba Hydara thinks differently. “We were devastated, angry and shocked at the release of the Junglers. I never thought that [they would] be released,” he said. Hydara currently sits on the board of the Victim Centre, a civil society organization helping victims of human rights violations under Jammeh. After the leaked letter and before the Junglers were released from custody, Tambadou had met with the Victim Center. The Center expressed frustration at his decision and asked him to rescind it. On August 9 the Minister held another meeting at the Victim Center to explain to them the rationale of his decision. “I want you to trust me. I have been with the victims all the way and I can assure you that every decision I make is in your interest,” said the Justice Minister, while adding that he could not disclose every detail about the release of the Junglers.
Despite the anger, Tambadou is not without supporters. A Gambian human rights activist and country director of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Madi Jobarteh said he agrees with the Minister’s decision. “I don’t think the Junglers pose any threat to society,” Jobarteh said. “I don’t think they will get amnesty. They might get reduced sentences for their cooperation but they cannot get amnesty because of the nature of their crimes. It is significant that they can get them as witnesses who will cooperate and not become hostile,” he explained.
The Junglers’ personal security
The released Junglers are Omar Jallow, Amadou Badgie, Malick Jatta and Pa Ousman Sanneh. Two others, Ismaila Jammeh and Alieu Jeng, are yet to be released, army spokesperson Major Lamin Sanyang told JusticeInfo. Major Sanyang said the Junglers were released on conditions and put on administrative leave from the Gambian Armed Forces. “Two of the conditions are to be given psychosocial support by the TRRC and to accept being prosecution witnesses in the future,” added Sanyang. “The Junglers are still being given psychosocial support. They have started benefiting from that since they have agreed to testify before the Commission. That same process is being continued,” confirmed Essa Jallow, the Commission’s head of communications.
While justifying their release, one of the questions the Justice Minister was asked was whether the state was going to provide security for the Junglers. His response was “no”.
Tambadou is counting on the patience of the victims to allow justice to take its course. But there is anger on the street. Even the army had to advise the Junglers before they were released. “We cautioned them that a lot of people are not happy about their release and that they should be cautious,” said Major Sanyang. “People can behave irrationally if they are hurt”, admitted Baba Hydara. “I will never forgive him [Malick Jatta] for killing my dad. I am not sure what I will do if I meet him on the street,” he said.
Malick Jatta back at home
Malick Jatta went to his native village of Tujereng, a coastal fishing town about an hour drive from Banjul, Gambia’s capital. He lives in a modest cement block house built by his brother who is an immigration officer. There, the former Jungler is seen as a nice person. “We were surprised seeing him testify for the murder,” said Modou Gibba, a young man in his early 20s. Gibba has known Jatta growing up in Tujereng and they still sit together. “Malick was living a very normal life here. No one in Tujereng actually associated him to anything bad,” said Gibba. “He was a very kind person. He likes children. There are always boys around him.”
Of course Gibba said they knew Jatta was working at State House and was involved in “The Patrol” but little was known on the exact activities he was involved in. And so, back in his community, Jatta seems easily reintegrated. “His relations with us are very normal. He is the same person we knew. I don’t think the society sees him differently,” Gibba told JusticeInfo. “People here believe that they were forced to do this. It was not his will to kill.”
That may be the view of Jatta’s friends and community but for Baba Hydara there is only one solution: “There cannot be reconciliation at the expense of justice. We can prosecute these people,” he said.