By Sanna Camara in Banjul, The Gambia
You would be right to think that former International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has led a charmed professional life. And once again, she has received a high-level appointment, this time to represent her country, The Gambia, as its High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
The new job comes barely three months after the United Nations Human Rights Council picked her to head an international commission of experts mandated to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights, and humanitarian and refugee law in Ethiopia committed since November 3, 2020, when the latest round of fighting broke out in that country.
The two jobs have come within just 12 months since she completed her nine-year term as ICC Prosecutor in June 2021.
Even before her time at the ICC, first as Deputy Prosecutor since 2004, then Prosecutor in 2012, Bensouda seems to have had a career that many only dream of. In The Gambia, her home country, she rapidly rose through the ranks in the judicial system, where she had started as public prosecutor in 1987. She went on to serve as State Counsel, Senior State Counsel, and later Principal State Counsel. From 1994 to 2000, during the first six years of dictator Yahya Jammeh’s rule, she served as Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Solicitor General and Legal Secretary of the Republic, and Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Bensouda was for two years the chief legal adviser to the presidency and the Cabinet.
She joined the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 2002, worked as Legal Adviser and Trial Attorney in Arusha, Tanzania, and by the time she left , she was Senior Legal Adviser and Head of the Legal Advisory Unit.
By all counts, Bensouda is more than qualified for her new job in the diplomatic world. So, why are some of the victims of the human rights violations of former president Jammeh’s regime not happy about the former ICC Prosecutor’s latest elevation? Why is she being lumped together with the likes of Seedy Njie and Fabakary Tombong Jatta, who have both been accused of enabling Jammeh to commit human rights violations and other grave crimes against the people of The Gambia?
“It is a great injustice to the victims. If anything, she must be made to account for overseeing the violations meted out to me and my colleagues when the world was not watching,” said 67-year-old Omar Bah, who was arrested in October 1995 and tortured for opposing the military government of Jammeh.
He insisted that Bensouda was in charge of drawing up the charges of sedition that were preferred against the protesters for what he described as a peaceful assembly. The charges led to long periods of detention and torture in the hands of state security agents.
In his opinion, Bensouda should not be allowed to serve in any capacity in the government of The Gambia, much less as a diplomat in a foreign country.
However, the former ICC Prosecutor said she had recommended that several such cases be dismissed for lack of evidence.
The TRRC recommended that several adversely mentioned persons still in the public service be removed and some even prosecuted. The government has pledged to implement the recommendations, yet it is continuing to appoint people who have been, either directly or indirectly, linked to the abuses it has promised to punish. That is the reason names like Seedy Njie and Fabakary Tombong Jatta, and now Fatou Bensouda, have been coming up.
Njie was a nominated parliamentarian during Jammeh’s time and later became Information Minister and is now Deputy Speaker of the Gambian National Assembly. He is deputising Jatta, a long-serving parliamentarian of Jammeh’s political party and Majority Leader in Parliament.
“What the Junglers did for Yahya Jammeh is the same thing Fabakary and Seedy Njie did for him in the legislature. They are responsible for all the bad laws that enabled dictatorship, that supported all the crimes that were committed during Jammeh’s time,” said Sheriff Kijera, the chairman of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations.
He cited the Indemnity Act, which was passed after the April 10, 2000 students’ demonstrations during which 14 people were killed. The law protected security officers from being held accountable for the deaths and injuries. There was also the Public Order Act, which banned protests and demonstrations, and allowed the authorities to imprison perceived Jammeh political opponents and activists.
“These bad laws were enacted in Parliament, orchestrated and planned by Jammeh and enabled by Fabakary as the majority leader and Seedy Njie as member of Parliament in the president’s political party. It is very disheartening, it is disappointing that they are now serving in the government,” he argued.
President Adama Barrow’s appointment of the two earlier this year was not well received by victims and organisations representing their interests. By appointing and retaining in the government some of the people seen as Jammeh’s enablers, Barrow was seen as cementing growing suspicions that he is not serious about implementing the recommendations of the Truth, Justice and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which state that some of them be prosecuted.
“Adama Barrow has betrayed the trust of Gambians, he betrayed Gambians in the most disrespectful manner,” is how Kijera describes the controversial appointments.
Although Bensouda’s name appears only in passing in the final report of the TRRC, she was adversely mentioned in some testimonies during the public hearings of the commission. Some victims, including Batch Samba Jallow, Sainey Faye, and Kebba Tunkara, have accused her of enabling some of the abuses through the actions of her office. She has denied the allegations and insisted that she did not know that the Jammeh government was practising torture and murder at the time.
The efforts of Journalists For Justice (JFJ) to get in touch with the victims only yielded Bah. Jallow was said to be undergoing treatment in the US while sources indicated that Tunkara might have died recently. Tunkara’s tale of his suffering, which he narrated to JFJ, was published in June 2021 (https://www.thevictimsbantaba.org/kebba-tunkara-is-hard-of-hearing-has-lost-a-leg-and-is-in-poor-health-but-he-is-one-of-the-lucky-few-to-survive-torture-and-degradation/).
“Fatou attempted to charge some members of our group with treason. We had initially been arrested for sedition. We were taken to Mile 2 Prison, yet we did not even act outside the law: we did not hold a procession, neither did we burn tyres. A number of us had just gathered at the UK and US embassies to deliver our message of rejecting a military government,” Bah, who lives in Basorri village in the outskirts of Banjul, told JFJ.
He insisted that the protesters were exercising their right to freedom of expression, but they were arrested and taken to Fajara Barracks in Bakau, where they were subjected to torture.
“We were severely tortured. Only a few of us have survived to this day. The rest have since died, one by one. Those of us who survived are in poor health and no longer productive,” he explained.
“At one point we were hit on the head and back with wooden planks covered with protruding nails. The nails tore out the flesh and you could see the bleeding through our clothes. Many of us got tetanus, but we did not receive proper medical treatment.”
Bah still suffers from the effects of the torture and cannot do manual work. He struggles to get out of bed in the morning and it takes hours of physical therapy before he can walk.
Bensouda has in the past claimed ignorance about the abuses during her term in office. In an interview published by JusticeInfo.net in November 2021, the former ICC Prosecutor insisted that she was not aware that torture and extrajudicial killings were going on when she was in office. She insisted that she never saw any report sounding the alarm on the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, not even a January 1999 report by Amnesty International detailing the detention and torture of prisoners as well as attacks on freedom of expression and association. The report made reference to Amnesty’s previous expositions on The Gambia situation.
“I remember that at the time, Human Rights Watch came to The Gambia once or twice. And we went to visit the prisons. I remember it, because I was also concerned. Of course, there was overcrowding in the prisons, but that was nothing new, it was already the case before Jammeh arrived,” she said in the interview.
Sainey Faye, who testified before the TRRC on behalf of the victims, gave a graphic description of the torture he and others suffered.
“Everyone could see the marks [resulting from torture], no one could deny it,” he said, adding that although the judge granted the group bail, Bensouda, who was prosecuting their case, invoked a decree citing security reasons, sending them back to the army prison for 90 days. They ended up in detention for nine months.
His testimony was borne out by several other victims, including Jallow and Tunkara.
Even though Jatta, Njie, and Bensouda are not adversely mentioned in the TRRC report, or even indicted for crimes committed during Jammeh’s era, the victims consider their appointment to important government positions as morally wrong.
However, Justice Minister Dawda Jallow, whose ministry has been charged with the implementation of the TRRC recommendations, does not agree. He is of the opinion that only the people the TRRC report recommended for prosecution and reparation should be made to answer for their misdeeds.
“Show me where the three names have been adversely mentioned in the TRRC report,” was his reply to our questions.
“Sensitivities for other aggrieved parties may be an emotional or moral issue that I do not wish to comment on. If anyone thinks that such acts [of appointing the three persons in question] have broken any law, they are free to bring it to the courts,” the minister said.
The former ICC Prosecutor has yet to reply to our questions on this subject.
Kijera blamed Fabakary and Njie for the crafting and approval of the state of emergency law after Jammeh lost in the December 2016 presidential elections. The law was seen as an attempt to give Jammeh a lifeline to cling to power and led to the displacement of thousands of civilians.
He thinks Bensouda was far removed from the realities in the Gambia because she was preoccupied with her international jobs.
“She failed to investigate Yahya Jammeh or even to say something about these gruesome atrocities,” he said.
Bensouda has in the past defended herself from accusations that she did not say anything over the years as Jammeh terrorised Gambians, saying because of her position (as ICC Prosecutor) she could not make statements on “political issues” of countries.
Sanna Camara is Lead Consultant at MaiMedia Consulting. Email: Maimedia053@gmail.com