Gambian on trial in Germany over AFP reporter murder

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A Gambian man went on trial in Germany Monday, accused of belonging to a death squad that assassinated opponents of former dictator Yahya Jammeh, including an AFP journalist.

The suspect, identified by media as Bai Lowe, is accused of crimes against humanity, murder and attempted murder, including the 2004 killing of AFP correspondent Deyda Hydara.

Lowe, 46, wore a black hooded coat and hid his face behind a green folder as he arrived in court in the northern town of Celle.

The trial is "the first to prosecute human rights violations committed in 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, activists held a placard demanding that Jammeh "and his accomplices be brought to justice".

Lowe is accused of involvement 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 having helped stop Hydara's car before driving one of the killers in his own vehicle.

- Controversial column -

Hydara was an editor and co-founder of the independent daily The Point and a correspondent for AFP for more than 30 years.

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 his newspaper 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," he 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 would also "be judged".

The day's hearing was mainly devoted to technical issues and Lowe, who kept his hooded coat on throughout, did not address the court.

But Baba Hydara said at the end of the hearing: "It was good, this face to face with him."

Prosecutors also accuse Lowe of having driven members of the Junglers to a location in Banjul in 2003 to assassinate lawyer Ousman Sillah, who survived the attack with serious injuries.

- 'Important day for justice' -

In a third incident in 2006, Lowe is accused of having driven members of the unit to a site near Banjul airport where they shot and killed Dawda Nyassi, considered an opponent of the president.

The court heard that he arrived in Europe via Senegal in December 2012, seeking asylum as a political refugee who feared for his life under president Jammeh.

The evidence against him includes a telephone interview he gave in 2013 to a US-based Gambian radio station, in which he described his participation in the attacks, according to police.

While he has refused to confirm his account in interviews with police, investigators found thousands of photos on his mobile phone which they say indicate his involvement in the killings.

Jammeh ruled Gambia with an iron fist for 22 years but fled the country in January 2017 after losing a presidential election to relative unknown Adama Barrow.

He refused to acknowledge the results but was forced out by a popular uprising and fled to Equatorial Guinea.

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.

A statement from Gambia's justice ministry and attorney general welcomed the German trial and said they were working closely with German officials to gather evidence related to the alleged offences.

"The trial, which is the first of many, highlights the Government's commitment to accountability for crimes of the past," the statement added.

Patrick Kroker, a lawyer for Baba Hydara, told AFP outside the court that the opening of the trial was "an important day for justice".

"We hope it will be a signal to... Switzerland and the United States, but also Gambia", he added.

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