(JollofNews) -Welcome to another press briefing of the Ministry of Justice following the last one in May. As usual, the primary purpose of our press briefings is to provide the public with periodic updates and relevant information on the progress of the activities of the Ministry as part of the Ministry’s policy of engendering transparency and accountability in government.
The NIA 9 Case
I welcome the decision of my brother Sheriff to withdraw from the prosecution team in the NIA 9 case. It is the right thing to do under the circumstances. His withdrawal, therefore, will allow the prosecution team to focus on the more important task of establishing criminal accountability for the unfortunate death of Solo Sandeng.
Let me however make clear that the selection of Sheriff as co-prosecutor was the exclusive decision of the Special Prosecutor Mr. Antouman Gaye. As Attorney-General, I have strictly limited all my communications on the case to direct contact with Mr Gaye exclusively. But appointing Mr Gaye as Prosecutor also comes with allowing him a margin of appreciation in his management of the case including his selection of a prosecution team and a prosecutorial strategy of his choosing. For the record, I was made aware of the defence’s proposals to commence negotiations towards a plea bargain and I gave my approval in principle for this.
Notwithstanding, I have come to the conclusion, in view of the entire circumstances of the meeting between Sheriff and the representative of the 1st Accused, and having listened to the audio recording, that the said meeting could reasonably be interpreted as creating the impression that my decisions as Attorney General could be influenced by extraneous factors.
I wish to state for the record, that all the decisions that I have taken since my appointment as Attorney General and Minister of Justice have been based purely on professionalism and in the best interest of the country without any undue influence from anyone including family members.
I wish to state further that my personal commitment to ensure justice for all the victims of human rights violations and abuses of the past 22 years, is matched only by the zeal and enthusiasm with which I embraced the call to return home and serve my country.
I have demonstrated my commitment to justice in the Solo Sandeng case in particular by appointing a senior and very experienced criminal law attorney as Special Prosecutor in the person of Mr Antouman Gaye and I continue to give him all the support necessary to enable him conduct an effective prosecution. I re-iterate my full confidence in Mr Gaye’s ability to prosecute this case with diligence and professionalism as the case for the prosecution remains strong.
I have set myself the goal of restoring public confidence in our justice system and setting the highest standards of integrity in public office. I remain fully committed to these objectives.
These are very difficult times for my family and I thank all those who reached out to show support.
On the freezing of the assets in the country of former President Yahya Jammeh, we continue to receive additional information in respect of a significant number of assets purportedly belonging to him and his close associates. We however want to make sure that the reports we are getting about ownership of these latest assets are factual and accurate. We have now filed a supplemental list of assets before the High Court in Banjul for the inclusion of these newly discovered assets in the freezing order. So far, this new list includes 49 additional landed properties located in the greater Banjul area bringing the total number of known landed properties owned by former President Yahya Jammeh to 180 in the country.
Truth, Reconciliation And Reparations Commission
The Ministry has now concluded the first review of the draft TRRC bill. We have also now shared this draft bill with international experts who have acquired experience on the establishment of truth commissions from around the world. Let me emphasize that while we will seek the views of outsiders on our truth commission process, our TRRC will be designed by the people of The Gambia based on a model that fits the particular social, cultural, political and historical context of The Gambia.
Consequently, the Ministry intends to lead a team on a tour of all the administrative regions of the country to engage the people in discussions about the TRRC process. The touring team will be selected from a cross-section of Gambian religious, political, ethnic, civil society, professional, youth and women communities who shall themselves undergo a one or two day workshop about the methodology of the public consultations on the TRRC before embarking on the tour. The different groups will be requested to nominate members for the touring team.
We hope to start this public engagement tour in early August 2017 so that the finalized draft bill will be tabled before the National Assembly in September. If the bill is passed into law, the recruitment exercise for positions in the TRRC will commence soon after to ensure that we remain on course to start hearings by the end of the year as planned. Recruitment will be done through an open competitive process for most of the posts with a few exceptions such as direct appointments by the President of the Republic.
We shall soon start radio and television discussions about the whole TRRC process, its objectives and rationale so that there will be better understanding about the process for both perpetrators and victims and the public at large. The Ministry has already started reaching out to Christian and Islamic religious leaders to engage with and encourage their communities and congregations to be open and truthful about our dark past as a way to sustainable peace and genuine reconciliation in the country. This is particularly important as perpetrators and victims of abuses continue to live together in small communities with mistrust and suspicion hovering over them and that this needs to be addressed in an open, transparent and truthful manner.
We therefore continue to call on community leaders and youth and women’s groups to engage their people in these discussions nationwide in a constructive manner. In this regard, we welcome the recent initiative of the National Council for Civic Education on the National Dialogue on Peace and Reconciliation and the public support given to this process by the respective Chiefs of Foni and the National Assembly members in the area.
Conversely, the Ministry of Justice condemns unequivocally all acts or utterances that encourage sectarianism in this country. Political and community leaders must conduct themselves with responsibility especially in their utterances and anything that tends to divide us along political or tribal lines should be avoided. We encourage everyone to embrace the message of peace in our communities. The present mood in the country is one of refreshing freedom and liberty. While we will exercise maximum restraint in the strict application of the law under these circumstances, this must not be interpreted as weakness. Democracy must not be equated with lawlessness. The exercise of any fundamental rights also come with responsibility to society and respect for governmental authority. No one should take the law unto themselves lest we undermine the very essence of our new found democracy which we all fought so hard to achieve.
The Ministry welcomes the official establishment of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations. We encourage them to reach out and include in their organization all the victims of human rights violations and abuses of the 22 year rule of President Yahya Jammeh and I assure them of my personal commitment to justice for all. We look forward to working closely with the Centre and building a strong partnership with them in this entire process. We will not be able to achieve much without their continuous support and solidarity and that is why ours will be a victims’ centered approach. We are a traumatized nation and our people must never be allowed to go through a similar experience again!
At a national conference on Justice and Human Rights held in The Gambia on 23 – 25 May, 2017 under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, and following identification of numerous amendments proposed for the 1997 Constitution, there was general consensus by a cross-section of the participants from Gambian religious, political, civil society and other communities that overall, the strategic objective of a return to sustainable democracy, would require the drafting of a new Constitution as a review by amendments to the 1997 Constitution will be too numerous and may not address all issues comprehensively. It is expected, therefore, that a new constitution of the Republic of The Gambia which will usher in the 3rd Republic, shall be adopted at the end of this exercise.
The MOJ, in consultation with the office of the Chief Justice, has now finalized a draft concept note and terms of reference for this constitutional review process. It is proposed that a Constitutional Review Commission be established with membership drawn from a cross-section of Gambian political, religious, civil society, youth, women, professional and other communities. The CRC will be mandated to engage in consultations with the Gambian public both in the country and outside. The CRC shall submit its report together with a new draft constitution based on its public consultations. The duration of the Commission shall be for 18 months from the date it will be established and the entire exercise shall last for not more than 2 years. The draft constitution shall be put to a referendum for adoption by the people of The Gambia. The proposed new constitution of The Gambia shall be one that reflects faithfully and accurately the views of the generality of Gambians both at home and abroad and from a cross-section of Gambian religious, political, civil society, youth, women, professional and other communities. Further details about the entire process will be shared in due course. The Commission shall engage in very rigorous public information and outreach programs about its activities and functions soon.
Commissions Of Inquiry
A presidential Commission of Inquiry into the financial activities of public enterprises, bodies and offices as regards their dealings with former President Jammeh has now been established. The Commission’s Terms of Reference have been published and are available at the National Printing Office. The Commission shall sit for 3 months from July 2017 at the Jerma Beach Hotel. The Commission will soon make public announcements with further details about their sittings etc.
There are plans to establish a second Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the alleged unlawful interference with and/or confiscation of private property by former President Yahya Jammeh under cover of the State. The Ministry has received numerous complaints and petitions from individuals alleging unlawful confiscation of their properties especially land by former President Yahya Jammeh under cover of the State. It is the Ministry’s view that in light of the number of complaints and petitions received, it will be for the public good to establish another Presidential Commission of Inquiry to look into alleged unlawful interference with and/or confiscation of private property by former President Yahya Jammeh in the name of the State.
However, for several reasons including the need to avoid potential overlap in some areas of inquiry between the two separate commissions of inquiry, the Commission of inquiry into the alleged unlawful interference with and/or confiscation of private property is expected to be established after the completion of the work of the Commission of inquiry into the financial activities of public enterprises as regards their dealings with former President Jammeh. More details about the second Commission of inquiry will be shared with the public soon.
The Criminal Case And Detention Review Panel
I am pleased to report that the Criminal Case and Detention Review Panel has now completed the review of all cases under its purview. You will recall that the Panel was established by the Ministry of Justice and its membership drawn from this Ministry and various other organs under the Ministry of Interior including the Gambia Police Force, the Prison Service, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency etc.
The mandate of the Panel was to review and make recommendations to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice on specified categories of cases including criminal cases against current or former public servants, or criminal cases linked to a political activity. I have now received the final report of the Panel with its recommendations.
Over the past 3 months, the Panel has reviewed a total of 241 criminal cases involving 304 accused persons. Recommendations were made to discontinue prosecutions in 36 cases involving 86 accused persons on the basis of insufficient evidence. Currently, there are 208 people held in remand awaiting trial or the conclusion of trial for various offences including murder and rape. Convicts or remand prisoners with medically certified mental disabilities will be transferred from prisons to Tanka Tanka psychiatric hospital for appropriate treatment.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the members of the Criminal Case and Detention Review Panel through the Chair, Ms Oli Danso, Senior State Counsel at the Ministry of Justice, for all the hard work and dedication shown throughout this challenging task. They have had to work extremely hard under very difficult circumstances including on weekends to ensure that the task is completed in a timely manner.
Criminal Justice And Media Law Reform
Calls for expressions of interest from local law firms or counsel for a comprehensive review of our criminal justice law and procedure to bring it in line with international best practices shall be announced soon after consultations with the office of Chief Justice.
Work on media law reform has already started in consultation with Article 19 and the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure. There will be a wider consultative process with stakeholders following these initial steps.
We intend to approach the criminal justice and media law reforms in phases bearing in mind the constitutional review process so that any changes in our criminal justice and media laws shall take into account the provisions of any proposed new constitution.
In our efforts to ensure that the international community including the United Nations continues to engage with and support The Gambia throughout this transition period, we attended the fourth annual session of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission in New York upon their invitation. During the session, we thanked the international community particularly the United Nations, the African Union and Ecowas for standing by the people of The Gambia during the political impasse in December and January, and urged them to continue their engagement with The Gambia as it seeks to consolidate the peace in the country.
Many speakers, including senior officials of the United Nations, and the Permanent Representative of the sister Republic of Senegal hailed The Gambia as a shining model that the rest of the world could learn from about peaceful political transitions. They urged continued rapid financial and other support to The Gambia.
On the margins of the Peacebuilding Commission session, we also held bilateral meetings with senior UN officials including the Administrator of the UNDP, the Rule of Law Office, the Office of Legal Affairs, and the Peacebuilding Support Office which has already disbursed to The Gambia through the UNDP country office an initial amount of $3M to kick start support for the security sector reform and our transitional justice processes including the establishment of a national Project Board under the leadership of the Ministry of Justice. In all our meetings, we emphasized the need for continued engagement with the Government and people of The Gambia and for rapid support in translating this democratic victory of the Gambian people into concrete economic advancement for ordinary Gambians.
In terms of strengthening capacity and enhancing resources within the Ministry, I am pleased to report that, with the assistance of our development partners especially the UNDP and the Turkish Government through its embassy in The Gambia, the Ministry will soon be able to provide every State Counsel at the Ministry with a desktop computer. The Ministry has meanwhile installed internet service in the whole of the Ministry for all counsel.
These two latest developments are absolutely essential in the provision of legal services in the 21st century. It will help to drastically reduce the time for the preparation of cases, provide counsel with greater and faster access to legal research tools, and maximize efficiency. Plans are also underway to introduce modern electronic case management systems, and electronic record keeping and sharing platforms to facilitate communications and the efficient management and retrieval of information within the Ministry.
These developments will be complemented by training inside and outside the country in the use of these tools. This will ensure that the Ministry provides services of the highest professional quality to the public and Government and advance our quest for equality of arms between the public and private bar.
Lastly, it is important to note that in order to stem the historically high attrition rate at the Ministry, retain its current crop of staff, as well as attract other experienced counsel from the private bar, the conditions of service and remuneration for counsel at all levels must be improved. As a result, we had set up a taskforce to look into the conditions of service of counsel at the Ministry. The taskforce has now submitted its report and recommendations to me for action. It is our hope that the conditions of service for counsel at the Ministry will be improved soon.
Allow me to add however, that with improvements to the working environment and conditions of service of counsel at the Ministry, there will also be a corresponding expectation that counsel will provide services of the highest professional standard to the public and Government. In this regard, we intend to introduce, at an appropriate time, an internal performance appraisal system within the Ministry to ensure that professional standards are kept at a consistently acceptable level, and to also encourage discipline and accountability in public office.