By Baba Galleh Jallow
The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission is set to resume its public hearings on Monday, October 12 after a long break due to the Covid-19 situation in the country. The decision to resume public hearings was taken after careful consultations and considerations of the Covid-19 situation in the country. The TRRC is also cognizant of the palpable desire of the Gambian public for hearings to resume.
As at the time of the TRRC’s second suspension of public hearings on August 4, 2020 the Commission had heard testimonies from 261 witnesses during 15 three-week sessions. Of these witnesses, 195 were male and 66 were female. Out of the 261 witnesses, 166 were victims and 46 were self-confessed perpetrators and adversely mentioned persons. Twenty-five of the 261 witnesses testified via video link from the Gambian Diaspora. These hearings also included several protected witnesses and in-camera testimonies.
So far, the TRRC has covered the majority of themes on its work plan. The themes covered are the 22nd July, 1994 coup, the November 11, 1994 incident, the January 1995 arrest and incarceration of the two members of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, the June 1995 murder of former Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay, the 1996 Denton Bridge incident involving security forces and members of the opposition United Democratic Party, violations of press freedom and the rights of journalists, the activities of the former president’s death squad, The Junglers, the April 10th and 11th, 2000 student demonstrations during which security forces shot and killed over 14 school children and one Red Cross volunteer, and wounded several others, sexual and gender-based violence, Jammeh’s 2009 witch hunting exercise in the Greater Banjul Area and the West Coast and North Bank Regions, attacks on road users by Jammeh’s convoys, an institutional hearing on the prisons, and Jammeh’s alternative HIV/AIDS and other diseases alternative treatment program.
For the remaining period of its mandate, the Commission is scheduled to hold institutional hearings on the NIA and the Judiciary among other public institutions, the 2005 murder of at least 56 West African nationals, including 44 Ghanaians, enforced disappearances, and the April 2016 incident during which several people were arrested and tortured resulting in at least one death. The Commission also hopes to hear testimony from other Junglers and victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The Commission’s initial plan was to conclude its public hearings in October 2020. However, as a result of two suspensions of public hearing due to the Covid-19 situation, that is clearly not possible. As things stand, hearings may continue into the first quarter of 2021.
Face to face outreach activities were suspended for most of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the various units of the Secretariat continued their operations using the best possible means in the light of the Covid-19 situation. The Communications Unit with the support of the UNDP TJ team conducted numerous outreach activities during this period. These activities included short TV messages in the local languages encouraging victims and witnesses to register and submit statements; messages on the TRRC’s Victim Participation Support Fund, its eligibility criteria and how to apply to access the fund; TV bumpers and radio jingles in English and local languages on the importance of registering with the TRRC; and on aspects of the TRRC’s mandate such as reconciliation, reparations, prosecutions, and amnesty and the NEVER AGAIN concept; radio talk shows along with the Victims Centre for three consecutive weeks, speaking on TRRC’s victim-centered approach, urgent assistance rendered to victims and encouraging victims to come out and register with TRRC; and granting interviews to numerous local radio stations on various issues. The Communications Unit also produced four short dramas on the TRRC’s work in different languages that will be broadcast in the near future.
Also active in outreach activities was the TRRC’s Women’s Affairs Unit. The Unit’s activities during the period under review included the preparation and signing of MOUs with 10 women-led organizations; preparation of concept notes for the conduct of research on the gender dimensions of 22 years of dictatorship; preparation of a research timeline and setting up of a research team within the unit; participation in podcasts on SGBV in collaboration with the UNDP TJ team in the local languages; and conducting women’s dialogues and listening circles in the URR, NBR and West Coast Regions.
Under the supervision of the TRRC’s Reparations Committee, a reparations policy has been adopted by the Commission and a set of reparations rules and regulations drafted and validated. The rules will be submitted to the MoJ for gazetting. It is expected that the Commission will start paying monetary reparations to victims before the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the Victim Support Unit has continued to implement the TRRC’s Interim Reparations Programme under the Covid-19 lockdown. In addition to giving ongoing support to four victims receiving medical treatment in Turkey, the Unit has been actively supporting victims in the country. One of these four victims in Turkey who also works as a Victim Support Officer for the TRRC returned to The Gambia last week after completing his medical treatment.
For the second year in a row, the TRRC has received funding from the United Nations Transitional Justice and Human Rights Project to implement the Commission’s Victim Participation Support Fund. The purpose of this Fund is to increase the participation of victims, their family members, witnesses and other informants in the TRRC processes, particularly in statement-taking, investigations and hearings, and finding remedies to their immediate and basic medical needs. The Victim Participation Support Fund covers expenses such as food aid for victims during the COVID-19 period; transport refund for victims who come to the TRRC premises; provision of food and refreshments; Daily Sustenance Allowance (DSA) and supply of medical gadgets to victims; psychosocial and trauma support services; as well as livelihood support for victims through the TRRC’s Welfare Committee.
By July 2020 more than 250 victims had benefited from the TRRC’s general welfare support while 66 received COVID-19 relief support. Fifteen SGBV victims and survivors have also benefitted from this fund, including the COVID-19 relief package. From August 2020 to date, the Commission has received more than 260 new applications for the COVID-19 relief package, 47 of which came from SGBV victims/survivors. The TRRC Welfare Committee will sit on Monday, 21 September to review these applications and provide the necessary support accordingly.
We are happy to report that the Victim Support Unit is fully resourced to reach and provide timely support services to registered victims. The Victim Support Fund provided timely relief in the form of food aid to victims during the Covid-19 lockdown period to improve on the nutritional status of victims in need. Chronically ill victims were provided with medications and medical items to aid their recovery in other to participate in the TRRC processes. The Victim Support Unit under this Fund started providing home visits for victims needing constant medical support. Conducive conditions are provided at the TRRC premises to aid the participation of victims before, during and after the hearings.
The TRRC’s Research and Investigations Unit has remained active throughout the COVID-19 suspension of hearings. Statement-taking from victims and other witnesses around the country has continued unabated mainly via phone calls. Research and Investigations have also continued on the remaining themes on the Commission’s wok plan.
Meanwhile, several activities have been initiated in readiness for work on the TRRC’s final report. A Proofreading Unit has been set up to proofread the transcripts of all testimonies for typos and grammatical errors by transcribers. These transcripts in addition to all statements submitted by all victims and witnesses will be the sources of information for the final report. A working group consisting of Commissioners, the Legal Team and the Secretariat will be set up to oversee work on the final report. With support from the UNDP TJ and Human Rights Project, consultants and data analysts are being recruited to provide support to the working group in putting together the final report.
Over the past couple of months, we have received several enquiries as to whether the Commission would seek an extension beyond its two-year mandate period. The answer to that question is definitely yes. Even without the Covid-19 disruptions, the Commission would have sought an extension to accommodate completion of the final report writing process. Writing a truth commission’s final report is proving to be an incredibly complex process, but we anticipate that the TRRC’s final report and recommendations would be completed and submitted to the government by June 2021.