The trial of a Gambian man accused of being part of a death squad that assassinated opponents of former President Yahya Jammeh, including a journalist of the AFP news agency, has begun in Germany.
The suspect, identified by media as Bai Lowe, is accused of crimes against humanity, murder and attempted murder, including the 2004 killing of longstanding AFP correspondent Deyda Hydara, who was also co-founder of Gambian independent daily The Point.
Lowe, arrested in Hanover in March 2021, will appear in court on Monday in the nearby town of Celle.
The trial is “the first to prosecute human rights violations committed in [The] Gambia during the Jammeh era on the basis of universal jurisdiction”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Universal jurisdiction allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, regardless of where they were committed.
Outside the courtroom on Monday, activists held a placard demanding that Jammeh “and his accomplices be brought to justice”.
Lowe is accused of being involved in two murders and one attempted murder while working as a driver for the hit squad, known as the Junglers, between December 2003 and December 2006.
“This unit was used by the then-president of Gambia to carry out illegal killing orders, among other things” with the aim of “intimidating the Gambian population and suppressing the opposition,” according to federal prosecutors.
Hydara, 58, was gunned down in his car on the outskirts of the Gambian capital, Banjul, on December 16, 2004.
Lowe is accused of helping to stop Hydara’s car and driving one of the killers in his own vehicle.
The father-of-four also worked as a Gambia correspondent for the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and was considered a doyen among journalists in the tiny West African state.
In The Point, he had a widely read column, “Good morning, Mr President”, in which he expressed his views on Gambian politics.
According to investigations by RSF, Hydara was being spied on by Gambian intelligence services just before his death.
Hydara was a tenacious and “really stubborn” journalist, according to his son Baba Hydara, 45.
“This is a day we have been waiting for for 18 years,” Baba Hydara told AFP outside the court.
“It’s an important day for justice but it is just the beginning of a long journey,” he said, expressing a hope that Jammeh will also “be judged”.
Prosecutors also accuse Lowe of driving members of the Junglers to a location in Banjul in 2003 to assassinate lawyer Ousman Sillah, who survived the attack with serious injuries.
His daughter Amie Sillah told a news conference before the trial that she hoped it would shed light on “why, who and how they tried to kill my father”.
In a third incident in 2006, Lowe is accused of driving members of the unit to a site near Banjul airport where they shot dead Dawda Nyassi, a suspected opponent of the president.
For more than 20 years, Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron fist but fled the country in January 2017 after losing a presidential election to the relatively unknown Adama Barrow. He refused to acknowledge the results but was forced out by a popular uprising and fled to Equatorial Guinea.
A truth and reconciliation commission established by Barrow has recommended that the former president face trial for human rights abuses under the latter’s tenure.
Lowe is the third alleged accomplice of Jammeh to be detained abroad.
The other suspects are Gambia’s former interior minister, Ousman Sonko, under investigation in Switzerland since 2017, and another former Jungler, Michael Sang Correa, indicted in June 2020 in the United States.
Patrick Kroker, a lawyer for Baba Hydara, told AFP outside the court that the opening of the trial was “an important day for justice”.