BANJUL (Reuters) - After police arrested 57-year-old Gambian activist Solo Sandeng at a protest a year ago, witnesses said he was beaten to death and buried in an unmarked grave near a fishing village.
Since then a new government has come to power, promising swift redress for alleged crimes committed during the 22-year rule of ex-president Yahya Jammeh, and nine intelligence officers are now on trial for the murder.
Yet hope for justice is already giving way to frustration for Sandeng’s family, as well as for relatives of the many other Gambians who disappeared before Jammeh fled the west African country in January.
They are growing impatient with a justice system which, starved of funds, equipment and expertise, is buckling under a backlog of dozens of unsolved cases from the Jammeh era.
Elation swept Gambia when Jammeh was forced out, and the new government of President Adama Barrow has promised to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in six months, modelled on similar bodies in other African nations.
But Sandeng’s family, discouraged by repeated adjournments in his case to let prosecutors gather more evidence, says that is not enough.
“We need justice to be served, then we can reconcile,” his daughter Fatoumata told Reuters, wearing a black veil and a white t-shirt with a picture of Sandeng’s face.
Police finally found and exhumed Sandeng’s body last month, helping his case to become one of just a few to have made it to court so far. But Fatoumata also sympathises with those relatives who do not even have the consolation of a trial.
“We have many families who have gone through this for many years and they need justice now,” she said in Banjul. “You can’t tell them to wait until you feel like doing something.”
Delays are common in even the best funded justice systems, but the problems of Gambia, a tiny agricultural economy, are profound.
Former victims have described arbitrary detention, torture and often death for political opponents under Jammeh, which rights groups argue must either be addressed at home or at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
But saddled with over $1 billion in debt - more than Gambia’s annual economic output - the country is struggling to function at all, let alone pay for a wave of complex trials.
“The economy is a shambles,” Finance Minister Amadou Sanneh told Reuters. “There is a serious deficit in the funding of judges.”
The European Union pledged 75 million euros ($80 million) to Gambia weeks after Jammeh left, resuming aid cut off in 2014.
But this will go towards food security, roads and jobs. Meanwhile, lawyers often have no internet access or find themselves unable to make hard copies of important documents for a lack of printers.
“Imagine a lawyer without a computer. It slows us down,” said Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou. “Lawyers make more money in their private practice than working for us.”
Tambadou said the Sandeng case was brought to trial too fast and not enough evidence was collected, but he urged patience.
“The weight of expectation is too high. Twenty-two years is not 22 days,” he said. “We have inherited a broken justice system and we must rebuild that system.”
Despite the delays and cash shortages, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission aims to start public hearings by the end of the year.
Gambia did not suffer a civil war or large scale ethnic conflict like other African countries that have set up such commissions - Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea after refusing to accept an election defeat by Barrow - so achieving truth and reconciliation should in some ways be a less daunting task.
Still, Gambia will need to learn from others’ experience. Opaque and costly, Ivory Coast’s commission was criticised for not offering specific recommendations to help solve differences that linger after thousands died in a short 2011 war. Liberia’s similarly failed to make many citizens feel that crimes committed during a decade of civil war had been redressed.
Others have had more success. In Sierra Leone, a U.N.-backed commission uncovered new facts about the roots of a nine-year civil war that ended in 2002, helping to avoid further conflict. In Rwanda, where 800,000 died in a 1994 genocide, community tribunals successfully tried abuses.
But rights groups say there can be no substitute for effective trials, although Jammeh has put himself out of the ICC’s reach as Equatorial Guinea has not signed up to the court in the Hague.
“The biggest danger for Gambia is that the commission becomes a talking shop with interesting dialogue about what happened without addressing the need for justice,” said Human Rights Watch Africa researcher Jim Wormington. “It cannot be a replacement for justice.”
Editing by Tim Cocks and David Stamp