PRESS BRIEFING: Justice Minister holds Press Briefing at the Victims’ Center

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Today’s press briefing is being held here at the Victim’s Centre in Senegambia and coincides with my first visit to the Centre since their relocation. I have chosen to hold this press briefing here today for many reasons but especially because we want to re-iterate our commitment and strong partnership with the victims of human rights violations of the Jammeh era, and our continued recognition of the important role they play in our transitional justice project.

I am here today with a few others: Mr Cherno Marenah the Solicitor General; Mr Hussein Thomasi my Special Adviser and the Focal Point for the Transitional Justice Project at the Ministry; Mr Julien Atakla the UN Expert on Transitional Justice attached to the Ministry; Mr Howard Varney of the International Center for Transitional Justice who is on a working visit at the Ministry; and finally Mr Baba Galleh Jallow the newly appointed but yet to be sworn-in Executive Secretary of the TRRC.

His Excellency, the President, acting under Section 22(2) of the TRRC Act, after consultation with me and the Public Service Commission, appointed Mr Baba Galleh Jallow as Executive Secretary to the TRRC. Arrangements are being made for Mr Jallow’s swearing-in and when this is confirmed the press will be informed. I am delighted about this appointment. Mr Jallow comes from the Gambian diaspora with a wealth of knowledge, credibility, and commitment. We welcome him back home and thank him for accepting this enormous challenge.

TRRC

As you must all be aware, the process of nominations for appointment of Commissioners to the TRRC has commenced. Today was meant to be the deadline for nomination of candidates in the greater Banjul area and the diaspora. This deadline will be extended for another week to allow for more nominations. The parallel process for the regional nominations has not yet commenced due to funding issues but hopefully this will be sorted out soon. We will continue to keep you informed of progress in these processes.

Our objective is to have the Commission start its first sitting in the first week of April subject to the timely availability of resources. We have already identified an appropriate location for the Commission. The Ministry and Mr Jallow, with the assistance of Mr Varney and Mr Atakla, are working on other issues including recruitment of support staff, logistics, training etc.

GOVERNANCE MILESTONES

Over the past one year since the installation of the new Government, we have identified some key milestones in the area of governance.

  1. Empowerment
  • National Stakeholders Conference on Human Rights and Justice of 500 participants from professional, religious, youth groups, women’s groups, politicians, civil society organisations, national and international non-governmental organisations, and experts on human rights, transitional justice and constitutional law
  • Nationwide consultations on the establishment of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission
  • National Conference of Gambian Lawyers that provided a national forum for interaction between Gambian lawyers from the diaspora and those who have been working inside the country to encourage and build professional engagement and intellectual collaboration among Gambian lawyers and to initiate a forum that will promote greater awareness and dialogue on contemporary legal and judicial issues in The Gambia
  • Enhance Ministry of Justice Professionalism through the provision of continuing legal education and the material resources to increase efficiency
  1. Judicial Reform
  • Appointment of 12 Gambian judges of the Superior Courts including a fully constituted Supreme Court Bench of Gambian Justices; and Magistrates for the subordinate courts
  • Institutional re-alignment in accordance with Constitutional provisions, for example, amendment of the Rent Act 2017 to restore judicial oversight of Rent Tribunals
  1. Strengthening Democracy and Rule of Law
  • Amendment of electoral laws to allow for greater public participation in democratic process by reducing the deposits payable to contest in legislative elections resulting in over 200 candidates vying for 53 national assembly seats in the legislature
  • Constitutional amendment to allow for the direct election of Chairpersons in local government placing them at par with mayors of the municipalities of Banjul and the KMC
  • Establishment of a Constitutional Review Commission by an Act of the National Assembly with a view to adopting a new republican constitution which will strengthen democratic governance including the establishment of presidential term limits
  • Ongoing review of media and criminal laws that limit the exercise of the right to freedom of expression
  1. Strengthening Human Rights
  • Establishment of a National Human Rights Commission by an Act of the National Assembly
  • Establishment of a Criminal Case and Detention Review Panel which 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
  • The exercise of the prerogative of mercy by His Excellency, the President, resulting in the pardoning of over 200 prisoners across the country
  • No more cases of arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, disappearance or torture
  • Treaty signing by His Excellency, the President, of the additional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the abolition of the death penalty indicating a commitment to abolish the death penalty in The Gambia
  1. Transitional Justice
  • Establishment of a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) by an Act of the National Assembly
  • Appointment of an Executive Secretary to the TRRC by his Excellency, the President
  • Establishment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate the business and financial dealings of the former President and his family members and close associates
  • Prosecution of the NIA 9 case regarding the death in custody of Mr Solo Sandeng

OTHER PUBLIC INTEREST MATTERS

Dr Ismaila Ceesay:

  • Our democracy is work in progress and challenges of governance will continue as we seek to build strong foundations
  • A lot of positives to take from the whole incident including the fact that civil society was galvanized. This is good for our nascent democracy. It shows vigilance and is a welcome development
  • The Police issued a public statement which demonstrates a recognition of their responsibility to be accountable to the public for their actions
  • These are all positive developments that emerged from this situation
  • Having said that, we want to make clear that Dr Ceesay’s rights were not in any way violated. The Police have a duty to investigate if they have reason to believe that a crime was committed.
  • On this occasion, it is my understanding that Dr Ceesay was invited to the Police and that he responded to the invitation by driving in his own car to the Police Station.
  • I am further informed that when he was requested to go home, he refused to leave the Station. This was clearly not a wise decision on his part.
  • In our quest for a new Gambia where respect for fundamental human rights is sacrosanct, we must  understand that the State also has responsibilities to maintain law and order.
  • Allow me to emphasize that it is not the role of civil society to determine what constitutes a crime or a violation of a right to freedom of expression. It is ultimately the responsibility of our courts to determine these matters. This is how democratic systems all over the world function. I say this because some of the statements made in connection with Dr Ceesay’s matter are unjustified.
  • No matter how strongly one feels about an issue, we must always exercise caution and be measured in our response.
  • In other words, let us avoid rushing to judgment on these critical issues and allow due process to take its proper course. The alternative is a risk of the breakdown of law and order.

Biometric ID Cards:

  • We should avoid making statements without the benefit of the full facts, and in matters that affect the Ministry of Justice, we have encouraged interested persons to contact us for clarifications on any matter. Again, we encourage everyone to take advantage of this open door policy before making false statements.
  • I will speak on this issue today simply because there have been a lot of misrepresentations and factual distortions and as a member of the Ministerial Taskforce entrusted to handle the matter, I am privy to all the facts which I will share with you today.
  • The first clarification I wish to make is that the Government did not award a contract for the production of national ID Cards to Semlex. I underscore the word award.
  • After a whole year of consideration of this matter, culminating in the establishment of a Ministerial Taskforce, which shows the seriousness with which this Government took up the issue, the Government has decided to recognize and restore the subsisting June 2016 Contract with Semlex which was purportedly terminated by the previous Government shortly after the Contract was executed with the Ministry of Interior in 2016.
  • The principal reason why it took the Government a whole year to consider and reach this conclusion was in recognition of the fact that another Gambian-owned Company Pristine Consulting was also involved in this activity but their contract for the production of ID Cards had expired in 2014.
  • Pristine Consulting of course disputes this arguing that their contract with the Ministry of Health on the E-birth registration system signed in 2015 was an extension of the contract with the Ministry of Interior for the production of national ID Cards. We hold a different view.
  • In any event, after three separate legal opinions prepared by the Ministry of Justice on this matter, the first one being in 2016 soon after the contract with Semlex was terminated, and another one in June 2017 prepared by three State counsel at the Ministry with the assistance of a senior lawyer from the ISLP, and following a further review of this opinion conducted in September 2017, all of which concluded that (1) the contract with Pristine Consulting had expired in 2014, and (2) that the termination of the Semlex contract was wrong and in breach of the contract terms.
  • Notwithstanding, and in consideration of the fact that the Government was still desirous of giving Pristine Consulting, as a Gambian owened company, a fair opportunity to compete with Semlex, the Government agreed, for strategic legal reasons, to conduct a restricted bidding process and invited Pristine and Semlex to submit bids for the production of national ID Cards.
  • A ministerial Taskforce was established to oversee this process comprising myself, the Honourable Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure Mr Demba Jawo, and the Honourable Minister of Finance Mr Amadou Sanneh as Chair. In order to ensure the integrity of the process, the Honourable Minister of Interior at the time was excused from participating in the process because of earlier public comments he had made regarding the matter. After consultations with our respective staff, both Pristine and Semlex were invited to submit their bids.
  • Pristine submitted their bids and Semlex did not maintaining their position that they still had a valid contract with the Government.
  • At this point, the Ministerial Taskforce had to consider its options: (a) proceed with the bidding process and potentially award the contract to Pristine and then face international arbitration proceedings with all the attendant legal and financial costs and in full knowledge that our position is weak or (b) cancel the bidding process and recognize and restore the June 2016 Contract with Semlex with no legal consequences for the cancellation of the bidding process.
  • The Ministerial Taskforce chose unanimously to recommend to Cabinet the second option which was approved.
  • If there is any lesson to draw from the ongoing Janneh Commission, it is the responsibility to take justified action no matter whose interest is at stake. This is what the Ministerial Taskforce did.
  • Cost of international arbitration in excess of two billion dalasis; Conapro, Gallia, Carnegie all resulted from wrongful termination of contract and we are not prepared to put that added responsibility on this Government just to satisfy the business interests of a few even if they are Gambians. Our hands are tied on this occasion.

I thank you all.

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  1. the amount Gambia has lost pursuing these cases is substantial, but it will only increase if the Gov`t decide to pursue the cases against African Petroleum Corporation. Who will pay for this ?

    “Cost of international arbitration in excess of two billion dalasis; Conapro, Gallia, Carnegie all resulted from wrongful termination of contract and we are not prepared to put that added responsibility on this Government just to satisfy the business interests of a few even if they are Gambians. Our hands are tied on this occasion.”

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