BANJUL, Gambia -- Gambians heaved a sigh of relief when longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh flew into exile in early 2017 after a surprise election defeat. Two years after a "new Gambia" emerged from the shadows, the West African nation now begins to address the alleged human rights abuses committed over more than two decades.
On Monday the country's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission began hearings that will bring many of the alleged abuses to light. Families of some victims are eager to get started.
"We want justice to prevail not only on the murder of my father, Deyda Hydara, but also on all the cases of human rights violations committed by the Jammeh regime," Baba Hydara said during a recent event commemorating the killing of the journalist in 2004 by assailants thought to be part of Jammeh's security forces.
Gambia's government under President Adama Barrow launched the commission in October, pledging to explore Jammeh-era crimes such as enforced disappearances, summary executions, torture and rape.
The process "is going to be methodical," the commission's executive secretary, Baba Galleh Jallow, told The Associated Press. "We are going to do our research and investigations, to invite victims and witnesses to come before the commission. Based on the evidence that comes out of it, we will make our recommendations for prosecution if needs be."
Authorities have vowed to right the wrongs of the past and ensure that human rights and the rule of law are central in the country's democratic shift.
The truth commission on Monday started taking evidence from witnesses, with the first sitting centered on the circumstances that led to the overthrow of the constitutional order in July 1994 by a group of soldiers led by Lt. Yahya Jammeh, who went on to rule for more than 20 years. Commission chairman Lamin J. Sise said they may have 24 potential witnesses for this part of the hearing.
The start of the hearings "is an important initial step toward securing justice, truth and reparations in Gambia and shows a strong commitment by the government to break with a past of systematic human rights violations," Amnesty International said Monday. "We hope that the testimonies and the information collected during these hearings will enable the truth to be known and made public and contribute to a renewed commitment to justice and accountability for all those Gambians that have been victims of human rights violations for more than 22 years."
While acknowledging the "positive strides" taken by Barrow's government, lawyer Emmanuel D. Joof told AP that "there is much to be done."
Public expectations are high. To many observers, the success of Barrow's administration depends on its ability to manage expectations and deliver on its promises.
Joof said the government has shown signs of wanting to improve Gambia's human rights record. However, he was quick to stress the need for security sector reform, saying that security forces under Jammeh were the ones who abused human rights. Many remain in their posts under Barrow's government.
"We need to reorient our security forces," Joof said.
In September, Gambia's national security adviser, Gen. Momodou Badjie, announced that consultations were underway for the drafting of a national security policy to address that and other concerns.
Accountability for abuses remains a major hurdle. Calls are growing for those responsible for gross human rights abuses to face the "full force of the law.'
"People have grievances," said a leading civil society activist, Madi Jobarteh. "The government should restore the rights and dignity of the victims."
It is not about vendetta or revenge, Jobarteh said. The transitional justice process is part of efforts to recognize that atrocities were committed and that those who bear responsibility must be held to account.
"All should be placed in the context of nation-building and reconciliation," he said.
While many Gambians have welcomed the truth commission, a leader of the former ruling party warned that justice should not be carried out at the expense of unity and stability.
"We are of the view that the truth must be established but let us do it with a view of reconciling people," Fabakary Tombong Jatta with the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction said during an exchange with reporters shortly after the commission was launched.
AP writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
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