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Germany investigates Jammeh's 'hitmen'

July 17, 2020

German police raided a house of Gambian asylum seekers who claimed to have been hitmen hired by former president Yahya Jammeh. The exiled leader is accused of ordering extra-judicial killings during his two-decade rule.

Gambia, Serrekunda: Kommission gegen Menschenrechtsverletzungen
Image: picture-alliance/AP/J. Delay

Federal prosecutors in Baden-Württemberg  are investigating a group of Gambian asylum seekers who claim to have been part of a hit squad within Gambia's military during Jammeh's regime.

As military personnel, the seven suspects were allegedly involved in the torture, ill-treatment, and murder of Jammeh's opponents, according to a report by German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Gambian ex-ruler Jammeh now lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Read more: Timeline: Gambia in crisis

The suspects also stated in their asylum hearings at Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) that they had been involved in the mistreatment of prisoners in Gambia's prisons.

Gambians inside a crowded ferry.
Many Gambians who fled under Jammeh's rule eventually returned after he was oustedImage: picture-alliance/AA/X. Olleros

Germany's effort in prosecuting crimes commited outside

It's not the first case where prosecutors in Germany have investigated crimes committed by people trying to seek asylum. In April this year, prosecutors charged former members of Syria's Intelligence Services for torturing fellow Syrians.

Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law, which came into force in June 2002, includes the so-called principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows German courts to prosecute crimes against international law even if they were not committed in Germany and neither the perpetrator nor the victim are Germans.

German constitutional judges
Rights activists are counting on Germany to deliver justice on behalf of victims of Jammeh's ruleImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch, who is now working with Jammeh's victims, told DW he is confident that Germany's legal system will deliver justice. "Perpetrators of international crimes need to be held accountable wherever they may be found."

Read more: Syria's intelligence apparatus on trial in Germany

Jammeh's 'reign of terror'

Under Yahya Jammeh's regime, security agencies carried out extrajudicial killings and torture of political opponents. Civil rights activists and journalists were not spared, either.

Members of the Presidential Guard carried out the most egregious crimes. Notable among them was ordering the killing of about 50 west African migrants in 2005. The victims included Nigerians, Ghanaians, Senegalese and Ivorians. Gambian security agents accused them of being mercenaries seeking to overthrow Jammeh.

Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the role of Jammeh's hitmen in enforcing Jammeh's orders.

Read more: The Gambia: Three former hitmen released after admission at reconciliation commission


Rarely do asylum seekers in Germany speak boldly of direct involvement in crimes committed in their home countries. More often, authorities act on a tip-off or whistleblower information to launch investigations and prosecute suspects. 

Returnee migrants in Gambia

If it is proven that the suspects were part of a notorious hit squad within the Gambian military that tortured political opponents of the former government, then German prosecutors will most likely investigate the possibility of their accomplices living in Germany.

Calls for extradition

Jammeh is accused of committing the atrocities starting 1994 when he came to power in a military coup to 2017 when he lost the presidential election to incumbent President Adama Barrow.

Since last year, a truth commission in the Gambia has heard from over 200 witnesses incriminating Jammeh, security agents, and some members of his government over human rights violations.

Sherrif Kijera, the chairman of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations, said justice must be accomplished. "I think the German authorities should work with relevant authorities in The Gambia to see how best they can get these people extradited to The Gambia," Kijera told DW. 

Supporters of Yahya Jammeh
Exiled Jammeh still commands considerable support in The GambiaImage: DW/O. Wally

"The truth-seeking process is already on. it will be good also to have them [the suspects] to be part of the process at least to get them to testify if it's possible," Sherif added.

Omar Wally (in The Gambia) contributed to this article