17 years after 14 students were killed in the Gambia, many are not talking about the law that triggered unprecedented impunity in the country. After the April 10 & 11 shooting of student protesters, the Jammeh-backed parliament passed the Indemnity Act.
Former President Yahya Jammeh has expressed his unpreparedness to endorse the petition written to him by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, urging him not to append his signature to the Indemnity Act.
Talking to journalists at the Banjul International Airport upon his return from a state visit to Mauritania, Jammeh said he would still not listen to a group of people who are in the business of pursuing their own interests.
Jammeh was defeated in elections last year and fled to Equatorial Guinea. The new Gambian leader, President Adama Barrow has made constitutional reform a priority for his administration. Barrow came to power after security forces used excessive force to squash opposition protests, killing at least two people.
Jammeh had refused to investigate the deaths and if he had won the presidential elections, those that have tortured and killed the activists would have been walking free through the streets of Banjul covered by Indemnity Act.
The Act was passed to prevent the prosecution of security personnel for their roles in the deaths of the 14 students in April 2000 and goes further to prevent the prosecution of security officers who claim their action is to protect national security.
National security has been used as a backdrop by Jammeh and his thugs of soldiers to torture, kill, imprison, arbitrarily arrest and detains his political opponents and perceived enemies.
Jammeh has used it to shield any person against prosecution for any act committed to quelling an unlawful assembly or other emergency situation. Jammeh has made it clear: that those who take part in protests are “enemies of the state funded by Western governments to destabilize the country.”
The Indemnity Act stipulates that “the President may, for the purpose of promoting reconciliation in an appropriate case, indemnify any person he may determine, for any act, matter or omission to act, or things done or purported to have been done during any unlawful assembly, public disturbance, riotous situation or period of public emergency.”
This law continued to prevent victims of April 10 & 11 from seeking redress and deters victims of human rights violation from seeking remedy.
The Indemnity Act has been challenged in the high court since 2001. After the government approved the controversial Act in 2001, allowing the President to shield people from prosecution, Hawa Sisay-Sabally spoke out against it as “tantamount to a coup against the 1997 constitution.”
Sisay-Sabally is a Gambian lawyer who served as Attorney General from 1996–1998 and has since spoken out against corruption in The Gambia and represented opposition politicians in criminal cases regarding their participation in pro-democracy protests.
Sisay-Sabally made the Act the subject of constitutional wrangling in the High Court of Justice Timothy Kabalata and got it to be sent to Supreme Court for interpretation.
President Barrow’s first attempt to weed out “bad laws” was met with a challenge. His focus was on eliminating the upper age law and have the nomination fees for public office reversed. He made no mention of what will happen to the Indemnity Act so far.
But his Attorney General and Justice Minister, Aboubacarr Baa Tambadou, a former UN prosecutor says patient is needed as the government readies a truth commission into allegations of human rights abuses and crimes against the state by Jammeh.
Tamabdou says the proper procedure has to be followed to ensure justice is delivered. Barrow’s administration is also yet to say if victims will receive compensation, many of whom are now bound to a wheelchair.
Gambia’s demoralized ex-vice president, Isatou Njie-Saidy was head of the National Security Council and in charge of the country when the students were gunned down. While Jammeh fled to exile, Njie-Saidy continues to live in the country, yet to be arrested and charged.