"The victims are impatient, particularly as they have had to keep things bottled up for so long"
By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victims of Gambia's former leader Yahya Jammeh said on Wednesday their hunt for justice had been boosted by meeting people who had suffered under Chad's ex-ruler Hissene Habre and had helped bring him to account for war crimes in a landmark case.
Three of Habre's victims - who were all jailed while he was leader - travelled to Gambia last week to speak to 15 people who say they or their relatives were detained, tortured or killed under Jammeh's 22-year rule, which ended in January.
The meeting came just days before an appeals court in Senegal upheld a life sentence for Habre for war crimes and crimes against humanity, marking the end of a 17-year fight by his victims and human rights groups to bring him to justice.
"They were open about the fight they went through, and told us how difficult the journey was to obtain justice," said Baba Hydara, son of reporter Deyda Hydara, whose unexplained killing in 2004 has never been fully investigated, rights groups say.
"Us Gambian victims face the same path, so it was important for us to understand what we are preparing for ... it is a long road ahead, we know it could take many, many years," Hydara, also a journalist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Habre, 74, was sentenced last year for ordering the killing and torture of thousands of political opponents during his eight-year rule. He fled to Senegal after being ousted in a 1990 coup.
His sentencing represents the first time in modern history that one African country's domestic courts have prosecuted the former leader of another on rights charges.
Gambia's Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea in January after stepping down under pressure from West African nations to accept his December election defeat to President Adama Barrow.
While the new government has promised swift redress for alleged crimes committed during Jammeh's rule, Gambia's justice system, starved of funds, equipment and expertise, is struggling to cope with a backlog of dozens of unsolved cases.
Former victims of Jammeh have spoken of detention, torture and death for political opponents, which activists argue must be addressed at home or at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
But Gambia's debt of more than $1 billion and its limited justice system, and the fact that Equatorial Guinea has not signed up to the ICC, makes the prospect of bringing Jammeh to justice both challenging and far-off, rights groups say.
"This meeting between the two sets of victims was intended to lay the groundwork, to take the very first steps towards justice," said Reed Brody, an American lawyer who has helped Habre's victims since 1999, and escorted the three to Gambia.
However political, security and institutional concerns in Gambia must first be addressed before Jammeh can face trial, said Brody, adding that even securing his extradition from the "protective shelter" of Equatorial Guinea would be difficult.
Gambia has vowed to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in six months and offer reparations to victims of Jammeh, modelled on similar bodies in other African nations, but victims such as Hydara say more must be done to achieve justice.
"The victims are impatient, particularly as they have had to keep things bottled up for so long," Brody said. "Now that all those emotions have been uncorked, people want to move forward."
Fatoumata Sandeng, daughter of activist Solo Sandeng who witnesses say was beaten to death after being arrested by police at a protest last year, said the meeting with Habre's victims was inspiring, and would help to build a case against Jammeh.
"It has given us hope that we can bring down Jammeh after all that he has done to us," she said. "But it won't be easy."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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