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Until then, we will continue to report

As a student, Sanna Camara fled from the shots fired by the Gambian police. Now the journalist has followed the court proceedings against former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko in Bellinzona – as closely as he could. This is his view of the trial.

By Sanna Camara (text) and Timo Kollbrunner (translation), 15.03.2024

When the president of the court in Bellinzona in January referred to a handwritten note, I almost fell off my chair. In it, former Gambian Interior Minister Ousman Sonko, who is on trial before the Federal Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity”, himself described how the then President Yahya Jammeh had ordered him to shoot at protesters in April 2016.

16 years earlier, in April 2000, I myself had been one of the hundreds of students who took to the streets after the rape of a fellow student by police officers and the murder of another student by firemen in Banjul. Soldiers and policemen shot at us and I ran home via a diversion. I don’t think I’ve ever run as fast as I did then. 15 people died, 14 of them from bullets. One of the people shot was a three-year-old toddler, another child was trampled to death in the ensuing stampede.

Escaped to report

My home country is a long country in West Africa, surrounded on three sides by Senegal and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean. It is less than a third the size of Switzerland and has a population of less than three million. It is named after the river that divides it into north and south: the Gambia River. After independence in 1965, The Gambia was a stable democracy for three decades, albeit dominated by one party.

Then, in 1994, a 29-year-old lieutenant of the military police set out to overthrow the long-term government together with four other officers. His name was Yahya Jammeh.

Jammeh promised that he and his men would be soldiers  with a difference, other soldiers, and promised a brief transition to civilian rule. He took off his uniform, put on civilian clothes and was elected president in 1996. Jammeh ruled with an iron fist, removing opponents, banning all existing opposition parties, stealing elections, torturing and disappearing people. The shooting of my fellow students during the demonstration in April 2000 is just one of the crimes committed under his rule.

I was 19 years old when the shooting took place. My friends who hadn’t escaped the torture and beatings by the soldiers called me a coward – probably because I wasn’t one of those arrested, detained or tortured.

I had escaped. But I made up my mind that I would make journalism my life’s work for our female colleagues who had not been spared by the bullets. To help hold the government to account and make a contribution to changing things. After leaving school in 2000, I went straight to The Independent newspaper to do a traineeship.

Arrested and expelled

In the two decades that followed, I experienced a lot of harassment and intimidation from the police, the army and the government. I was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned three times. Two of the arrests were directly related to Ousman Sonko. The first time, in 2006, he was the Inspector General of the Gambian police.

His unit sealed the offices of our editorial office, we were arrested and taken to a police barracks where we were interrogated in connection with a foiled coup attempt. The only “crime” we had committed was that we had published the names of people who had been arrested and were being held in various prisons without their families or lawyers having access to them.

Two of my colleagues were detained and tortured by the secret service for three weeks. The authorities made sure that “The Independent” never opened its offices again. Other newspapers didn’t want to employ me because they didn’t want to get into trouble with the regime. From then on, I reported as a freelance journalist.

In 2014, when Sonko was now Minister of Home Affairs, I was arrested after publishing a story in The Standard newspaper about the trafficking of Gambian girls and women to the Middle East – and the difficulties the police had in pursuing the suspects. I spent two days in a police cell and was refused bail. The police told me they were acting “on orders from above”. Since President Jammeh was at the African Union summit and therefore not in town, I think Sonko was behind the arrest and detention.

The case aroused the interest of high authorities in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It would have been easy for the judges controlled by Jammeh to invent any accusations against me and put me in prison or, even worse, to use the brutal “Junglers” to “take care” of me.

I therefore had little choice but to leave my young family with three children behind and move to Senegal. They soon followed me, but returned to The Gambia shortly afterwards because, as a refugee without a job, it was not possible for me to look after them. I myself remained in exile in Senegal for two and a half years.

The media must also be strengthened again

Yahya Jammeh was defeated in the elections at the end of 2016. He refused to step down. It was only when Senegalese troops marched into Banjul at the behest of the Ecowas Economic Community that he gave up and fled into exile. And I was able to return to The Gambia. The process of coming to terms with my country after Jammeh’s dictatorship is crucial, and I began to think more and more about aspects of The Gambia’s transitional  justice reporting. Over 400 witnesses have testified before the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). Justice and accountability are a crucial part of this process of transitional justice and reconciliation. Over 200 people were killed by the brutal Jammeh regime, and to this day the fate of some 70 disappeared people remains uncertain, including journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh.

Over 100 journalists have fled into exile, and less than a dozen of them have returned to work as journalists in The Gambia. Independent journalism was significantly weakened by the dictatorship. Sad highlights were the takeover of the country’s only daily newspaper at the time, “The Daily Observer”, by a businessman who was a friend of Jammeh in 1999 and the murder of the well-known journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004.

Private television stations were not granted a licence under Jammeh’s rule, and state broadcasters used 90 percent of their airtime to promote the president and his activities. Radio stations that produced critical content were closed, while those that remained broadcast sports, entertainment and social programmes. The process of coming to terms with the Jammeh dictatorship must definitely also lead to a strengthening of the media.

The potential of international justice

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to travel to The Hague from exile in Senegal to report on the trial of the former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo. Because the witnesses who were questioned spoke French, we journalists were provided with an interpreting service via headphones. During a visit to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, we were told that the hearings would be broadcast online so that the people in the countries concerned could also follow the proceedings.

I left The Hague inspired by the mechanisms of international justice and the role it can play in bringing those responsible for crimes to justice – when they might never have had to appear in court in the country where they committed them.

My country has certainly left its mark in the fight for human rights and the prosecution of serious criminal offences in the international arena. Forty years ago, Hassan Jallow, the country’s current chief justice, was one of the legal experts who drafted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He later succeeded the Swiss judge Carla Del Ponte as prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. My country was at the forefront of the fight for justice and accountability for the crimes against the Rohingya in Burma at the International Criminal Court. The former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is also Gambian.

However, as far as the atrocities committed during Jammeh’s time are concerned, only a few people in The Gambia have had to face criminal charges: a former minister of Jammeh was sentenced to death for his role in the murder of another minister. And six former members of the secret service were sentenced for the murder of opposition activist Solo Sandeng in 2016. At the end of February, the Gambian government and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) set up a joint committee to establish a hybrid court to prosecute the crimes committed under Yahya Jammeh.

However, many of Jammeh’s men also work in the government of the current president, Adama Barrow, and some of them hold high positions. For example, the man who was Inspector General of Police during the attacks in April 2016 that led to the death of Solo Sandeng was appointed minister. Other ministers and the speaker of parliament also held posts under Jammeh. This sends the wrong message to all the victims of the Jammeh dictatorship: it seems questionable whether the Barrow government is actually willing to deal with the crimes from this period carefully enough.

This makes the trial in Bellinzona all the more important for the Gambian people. If Ousman Sonko had not been tried here, he would probably still be a free man, just like his former boss Jammeh, who is living in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

So I was pretty excited when I started working with some Swiss journalist friends to explore the possibility of coming to Switzerland to report on the trial against Sonko.

Reporting made difficult

However, this turned out to be very complicated. Even the regulations for obtaining a visa in Switzerland are very strict. For example, you have to find a host who is prepared to give you a guarantee for up to 30,000 francs. My colleague Mariam Sankanu and I were also only able to afford the travelling expenses and living costs in expensive Switzerland thanks to the support of our friends.

Above all, Switzerland does not have any consular services in The Gambia. So we had to travel to the Senegalese capital Dakar to apply for a visa. And then again to collect it. Flights are expensive, and the journey takes seven hours by ferry and bus. In the end, I received a visa for 19 days in January. When the process resumed in March, it had long since expired. So I had to travel to Dakar twice again.

In the end, we were back in Bellinzona – and hardly understood anything. While the questions to Sonko and the private plaintiffs had been translated in January, there was now no translation at all. We had to rely on the support of journalist friends. If they weren’t there, it was hopeless. At some point on the second day, Mariam and I went home. It just didn’t make any sense. The court didn’t provide translations of the pleadings either. We had to personally endeavour to get them directly from the parties and translate some of them ourselves to get an idea of what was being negotiated.

I have to be honest: If this procedure wasn’t so important for the Gambian people, I probably wouldn’t have made the complicated journey to this cold, beautiful, mountainous country again. If the Swiss authorities made it a little less difficult for us, it would not only be less frustrating for us, but would certainly also benefit the image of Switzerland and its courts.

When Ousman Sonko, Yahya Jammeh and all the others have been brought to justice for their crimes in fair trials, I too will be able to reconcile myself with the dark history of my country. Until then, we will continue to report on this trial and others to come. We must ensure that the slogan Never Again“, which our country’s transitional justice system has adopted, is followed by a consistent process of coming to terms with the past.

Perhaps I actually escaped the bullets 24 years ago so that I can now report on the reappraisal of that time. Because through the work of today’s journalists, future generations will be able to understand how The Gambia came to terms with its dark past – and that Switzerland also played an important role in this.

About the person

42-year-old Sanna Camara has been working as a journalist for 23 years. He has written for “The Independent” and “The Standard“, among others, and now works as an independent journalist and lives in the Gambian capital Banjul.

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