The men belonged to the infamous 'Junglers' and allegedly took out multiple hits on the orders of former president Yahya Jammeh. They were released in a bid to encourage other perpetrators to come forward.
Three former hitmen were released from custody in The Gambia on Monday, sparking anger among the relatives of those murdered by ex-president Yahya Jammeh's infamous paramilitary unit known as the 'Junglers.'
The men appeared before the country's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) two weeks ago, where they accused Jammeh of ordering multiple hits, which included journalists, migrants and political opponents.
Gambian Justice Minister Abubucarr Tambadou defended his decision to release the three men, saying it would encourage others who were involved in alleged human rights violations during Jammeh's 22-year rule to come forward.
"What we must not do is to scare people away from telling the truth because that will not be in everyone's interest," he said.
The TRRC hearings are based on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the intention of creating a historical record of the extent of human rights abuses committed between 1994 and 2017 under Jammeh, including determining the fate of the victims and uncovering hidden or destroyed evidence.
Ever since the launch of the commission in October last year, The Gambian public has been gripped by the sudden torrent of graphic evidence.
One of the former hitmen, Amadou Badjie, told the panel of an incident in 2013 when Jammeh allegedly ordered two US-Gambian businessmen — who he suspected of plotting a coup — to be "chopped into pieces."
"Our team was a hit squad for Yahya Jammeh," he said. "We had blind loyalty for [him]."
Controversy over release
Abdul Jalilu Ateky, a researcher in conflict, peace and security at the University of Nottingham, told DW he supported the justice minister's decision to free the men for now — however painful it may be for some — pointing to similar examples in recent history.
"If you want people to disclose the truth, you need to give them that kind of immunity," he said. "In the case of Ghana after the dictatorship [of Jerry Rawlings], immunity was given to the perpetrators so that they were able to disclose what happened."
Gambian residents who spoke to DW were mostly understanding of the decision to release the hitmen.
"On the one hand, you have to balance the safety of the public…we should not be surprised if more lives are lost [at the hands of the hitmen], but on the other hand we have to balance it with [encouraging] more people to come out and testify," one Banjul resident told DW. "It's a difficult balancing act for the minister."
Another resident agreed that the process needed to play out as intended. "Though it's very painful, people need to understand how justice works," he told DW.
However, the families of those murdered by Jammeh's death squads clearly expressed their outrage over Monday's decision, including the son of prominent journalist Deyda Hydara, who was assassinated in 2004.
"It's like they're denying justice to the victims," Baba Hydara told DW. "That is so contradictory knowing that this commission is supposed to help us in our quest for justice...It is very, very worrying."
The government says the release of Jammeh's former hitmen does not grant them formal amnesty, but there are also no restrictions to stop them from fleeing the country, concerning human rights observers.
The search for truth
Over the course of the hearings, families will finally learn the truth of how their relatives were killed, living victims will be recognized and the perpetrators will be offered public apologies.
"The commission will allow people who's rights were violated by the state, or by individuals under the auspices of the state, to be reconciled so that they can begin a new life," Ateky told DW.
However, the process is likely to be long and difficult asthe commission seeks to establish what is truthful, and what is not.
Ateky is cautiously optimistic that the TRRC will eventually yield the hoped-for results.
"I think so far, so good," he says. "I think Gambians need to give the commission time, allow the commission to work to unravel the issues and allow the perpetrators to testify and give the facts."
The TRRC is just the latest in a long line of reconciliation commissions to take place across Africa following the end of conflicts or authoritarian regimes, with each commission tailored to suit the severity of the crimes and the state of society. Following the 1994 genocide, Rwanda established the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in 1999 (NURC) which drew upon traditional forms of community justice. In 2002, the National Reconciliation Commission in Ghana addressed human rights violations in the country between 1957 and 1993 under a series of military coup and subsequently introduced a comprehensive reparations program.
Jammeh 'unlikely' to face justice
Ex-president Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and was repeatedly re-elected under dubious circumstances until he was defeated by current president Adama Barrow in December 2016. Following six-weeks of political unrest, which prompted military intervention from neighboring states, Jammeh fled the country to Equatorial Guinea, which is also under authoritarian rule.
Human rights activists have long accused Jammeh's regime of frequent use of torture on political opponents and journalists, forced disappearances and executions without trial among other crimes.
However, despite the formation of the TRRC, Ateky thinks Jammeh will not return to The Gambia and stand trial for his alleged crimes anytime soon.
"I think that is very unlikely to happen unless President [Teodoro Obiang Nguema] Mbasogo's rule crumbles in Equatorial Guinea. If there is a new democratic transition then Jammeh may be brought to The Gambia to face trial. But as it stands now it looks very unlikely."
Ateky also stressed the long-term aims of the commission for the future of The Gambia.
"The commission is not just about punishment. It's about learning from those accounts and [getting the] facts so that you don't go back to where you started."
Sankulleh Janko contributed to this article.