The dic­ta­tor hunter

Yahya Jam­meh, former leader of Gam­bia, was a limo-lov­ing tyrant who ruled his peo­ple with fear, mur­der, hal­lu­cino­genic drugs and voodoo. And then es­caped to a gilded ex­ile.

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Lawyer Reed Brody has ded­i­cated his life to bring­ing tyrants to jus­tice. His lat­est tar­get? Yahya Jam­meh, the mur­der­ing, hal­lu­cino­gen-ad­min­is­ter­ing former leader of Gam­bia. By Colin Free­man

Reed Brody does not look like one of the world’s most for­mi­da­ble lawyers. He has a laid-back man­ner and a slightly bedrag­gled ap­pear­ance, even when wear­ing a suit. If he was cast in a TV le­gal drama, it might be as a low-level public de­fender, the sort whose clients are ei­ther broke or des­per­ate. As it hap­pens, most of those who seek him out do have no one else to turn to.

From Ye­men to Ethiopia, and Haiti to Pak­istan, every few days an email reaches his of­fices in New York, re­quest­ing his help in bring­ing a dic­ta­tor to jus­tice. Some­times the tyrant is still in power, some­times they are in com­fort­able re­tire­ment. But the senders all have one thing in com­mon: a faith in Brody’s abil­ity to pur­sue strong­men who might oth­er­wise never see a court­room. After all, his nick­name – one he is much too mod­est to like – is the ‘Dic­ta­tor Hunter’.

If Brody’s name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s be­cause his tar­gets aren’t al­ways house­hold

names ei­ther. The Sad­dam Hus­seins and Radovan Karadžićs of this world can usu­ally ex­pect the full force of in­ter­na­tional law, be it CIA snatch squads or ar­rest war­rants from the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. But for every ma­jor-league dic­ta­tor who has The Hague breath­ing down his neck, there are other, smaller-time vil­lains who get away with it. Some­times it’s be­cause fel­low dic­ta­tors pro­tect them. Of­ten, though, it’s be­cause they haven’t killed quite enough peo­ple for the wider world to care.

Yet as long as Brody is on their case, they’d be wise not to get too re­laxed in their dotage. Just ask His­sène Habré, ac­cused of killing nearly 40,000 peo­ple as ruler of Chad in the 1980s. After his over­throw in 1990, he spent decades in lux­u­ri­ous ex­ile in Sene­gal, con­fi­dent that fel­low African lead­ers would never put one of their own on trial. In 2016, though, he was jailed for life – the cul­mi­na­tion of a gru­elling 17-year le­gal cam­paign co­or­di­nated by Brody, which per­suaded Sene­gal it had a duty to pros­e­cute the tyrant it had so long shel­tered.

Even so, Brody has to turn most of those who seek his help away. ‘A lot of the time, they’re talk­ing about heads of state who are still in power, and re­al­is­ti­cally there’s not much you can do at that point,’ says the Brook­lyn-born 64-year-old, who used to keep a map on his of­fice wall adorned with pho­tos of dic­ta­tors around the world. ‘Th­ese cases take years, so you choose them care­fully.’

Talk­ing to me, Brody looks even less like a lawyer than nor­mal. He is dressed in shorts and a baggy black T-shirt, and we are in the gar­den of a bud­get tourist ho­tel in Gam­bia, sur­rounded by el­derly Bri­tons en­joy­ing the year-round sun and cheap beer. This west African Costa Brava is the un­likely setting for his next big case: Yahya Jam­meh, Gam­bia’s former dic­ta­tor.

A sun­glasses-wear­ing, limo-lov­ing strong­man of the old school, Jam­meh, 53, was the clas­sic tin­pot dic­ta­tor, lord­ing it over a na­tion of barely two mil­lion peo­ple. De­spite his fond­ness for Mu­gabe-style sound bites – he claimed that all Bri­tain ever taught Gam­bia was ‘how to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep ’–he never gained much no­to­ri­ety in­ter­na­tion­ally. Yet as an odi­ous despot he was up there with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi or Haiti’s ‘Papa Doc’ Du­va­lier.

Dur­ing his 22-year rule, thou­sands of Gam­bians

were tor­tured by his Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency (NIA), whose old head­quar­ters over­look a palm-lined beach not far from Brody’s ho­tel. Many were never seen again, their bod­ies buried in forests, wells, and pos­si­bly even fed to the pigs at Jam­meh’s farm in his home vil­lage of Kani­lai. A practising witch­doc­tor, he also used voodoo as a weapon, and once dosed 1,000 vil­lagers with a hal­lu­cino­genic ‘truth’ po­tion be­cause he thought they had cast a spell on his aunt.

Two years ago, in elec­tions in late 2016, Jam­meh lost un­ex­pect­edly to Adama Barrow, an op­po­si­tion un­der­dog who once worked as a se­cu­rity guard at Ar­gos on London’s Hol­loway Road. Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, Jam­meh’s de­feat was en­gi­neered by some of his own dis­af­fected hench­men, who claim to have de­stroyed boxes of fake IDS that he was plan­ning to give to teams of fake vot­ers. Ac­cord­ing to other re­ports, he was sim­ply too con­fi­dent of win­ning the vote to even bother rig­ging it. Ei­ther way, in the year that gave us Don­ald Trump, it was hailed by some as a re­minder that democ­racy wasn’t yet to­tally de­funct.

How­ever, after first con­ced­ing de­feat, Jam­meh tried to cling to power, hol­ing up in his palace with sev­eral hun­dred armed fol­low­ers. The price of get­ting him to go with­out blood­shed was an of­fer of ex­ile in Equa­to­rial Guinea, courtesy of Pres­i­dent Teodoro Obiang, an­other old-school dic­ta­tor. When Jam­meh waved his coun­try good­bye on a pri­vate jet in Jan­uary 2017, his vic­tims watched with mixed feel­ings. On the one hand, they were glad to see him go. On the other, they feared they were also say­ing farewell to the chance of him fac­ing jus­tice.

Since ar­riv­ing in Equa­to­rial Guinea – along with

A chain of com­mand lead­ing to Jam­meh must be proved – though dic­ta­tors get their dirty work done on a nod and a wink

his fleet of limos and at least $11 mil­lion in stolen trea­sury cash – Jam­meh has stayed quiet, living be­hind the walls of a grace-and-favour villa and farm­ing plots of land carved from vir­gin rain­for­est. It is some­thing of a come­down for a man who once called him­self ‘Ex­cel­lency Sheikh Pro­fes­sor Doc­tor Pres­i­dent’, but he may at least feel safe.

Equa­to­rial Guinea is not a sig­na­tory to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court, mean­ing Jam­meh is ef­fec­tively beyond the reach of in­ter­na­tional law. The only way to get him back is for Obiang to hand him over vol­un­tar­ily – not a likely prospect from a leader whose own hu­man rights record is as bad.

Such long odds, though, are noth­ing new to Brody, who spent years fear­ing the Habré pros­e­cu­tion would never hap­pen ei­ther. He took on the Jam­meh case early last year, after be­ing ap­proached by Nana-jo Ndow, whose fa­ther van­ished in Jam­meh’s jails. After years of not know­ing his fate, she had just had con­fir­ma­tion that he’d died. ‘She asked me if it was pos­si­ble to get Jam­meh on trial, and I told her: “It’s pos­si­ble if you’re pre­pared to fight for it,”’ Brody says. ‘Sure, it’s go­ing to be a slog, but if it takes years, that gives us time to get vic­tims to come for­ward and build the case. As with Habré, if we cam­paign enough, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will even­tu­ally pressure Obiang to hand him over.’

The trick, he says, is not quot­ing in­ter­na­tional le­gal statutes, but gath­er­ing vic­tims’ tes­ti­mony, and turn­ing it into a com­pelling nar­ra­tive that the world can’t ig­nore. Hence Brody’s fre­quent visits to a drab of­fice block in the Gam­bian cap­i­tal, Banjul, home to the newly formed Gam­bia Cen­ter for Vic­tims of Hu­man Rights Vi­o­la­tions.

With the fear of Jam­meh now gone, new vic­tims turn up here every day. Wel­com­ing them in are vet­eran ac­tivists like Amadou Scat­tred Jan­neh, 55, who was ar­rested by the pres­i­dent in 2011 for dis­tribut­ing T-shirts say­ing ‘End dic­ta­tor­ship’. It was the year of the Arab Spring, and Jan­neh was hop­ing to start an African equiv­a­lent.

In­stead he was thrown in Banjul’s Mile 2 Pri­son, where he spent the first eight months in soli­tary con­fine­ment. ‘It was me and four walls and a lot of geckos, mos­qui­toes and heat,’ he says. ‘I stopped my­self go­ing crazy by think­ing about Nelson Man­dela. I told my­self: “That guy did 27 years and he came out OK.”’

Jan­neh fig­ured his best chance of not ‘dis­ap­pear­ing’ was to pub­li­cise his plight. Us­ing scraps of pa­per, he wrote an ar­ti­cle on Gam­bia’s pri­son con­di­tions for a coura­geous lo­cal news­pa­per edi­tor, which a fel­low in­mate smug­gled out in his un­der­wear dur­ing a hos­pi­tal visit. He also held US cit­i­zen­ship, which meant the Amer­i­can em­bassy got in­volved. After 15 months he was freed after an ap­peal by the civil rights ac­tivist Jesse Jack­son.

He now hopes to bear wit­ness for other in­mates who didn’t make it out. His spell in Mile 2 co­in­cided with one of the dark­est episodes of the Jam­meh era, when the pres­i­dent abruptly ended a death penalty mora­to­rium. Jam­meh claimed it was be­cause Gam­bia was in the grip of a crime wave, but on the diplo­matic cir­cuit, the ru­mour was that he feared a coup was brew­ing, and thought hu­man sac­ri­fices would ward it off.

What­ever the cause, Jan­neh re­mem­bers see­ing the ter­ri­fied in­mates be­ing taken away to a fir­ing squad, in­clud­ing Lamin Dar­boe, the man who’d smug­gled his news­pa­per ar­ti­cle out. ‘It was aw­ful. He was ask­ing me, “Am I go­ing to get ex­e­cuted?”’ Jan­neh says. ‘But there was noth­ing I could do.’

Many at the vic­tims’ cen­tre do not even know

how their loved ones died. Aye­sha Jam­meh was 14 when her fa­ther – a rel­a­tive of the pres­i­dent – was ab­ducted in 2005. He had ap­par­ently made the mistake of think­ing that his blood ties to the dic­ta­tor en­ti­tled him to make occasional criticisms.

His fam­ily later heard that he had been mur­dered by a hit squad, but were so scared that for years they pre­tended to neigh­bours that he had sim­ply taken the ‘Back Way’ – the nick­name for the peo­ple-smug­glers’ route to Europe used by thou­sands of Gam­bians flee­ing Jam­meh’s regime. Only after Jam­meh’s fall did Aye­sha feel safe to speak out. ‘I want to look Jam­meh in the eye one day and ask him what he did to Dad,’ she says.

Brody does not pre­tend that get­ting Jam­meh in the dock will bring ‘clo­sure’ for peo­ple like Aye­sha. Of­ten, he says, vic­tims have a pain inside them that leaves them ‘still un­sat­is­fied even when the de­fen­dant is found guilty’. But he adds, ‘That can also be a pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tor – they just won’t

give up. My job is to be like a soc­cer coach, to har­ness that en­ergy in a pos­i­tive way.’

It will take more than hor­ror sto­ries to build the case. A chain of com­mand lead­ing di­rectly to Jam­meh will also have to be proved – sel­dom easy with dic­ta­tors, who usu­ally get others to do their dirty work on a nod and a wink. Yet down the road at Gam­bia’s Supreme Court, a trial is al­ready un­der­way that may help es­tab­lish his cul­pa­bil­ity.

In the dock are nine se­nior mem­bers of Jam­meh’s NIA, charged with the mur­der of Solo San­deng, an op­po­si­tion leader who died in cus­tody after be­ing ar­rested dur­ing a demon­stra­tion in April 2016. His body was ex­humed last year from a shal­low beach­side grave, after a tip-off from one of those now in the dock.

Lawyers for the de­fen­dants told The Tele­graph it was not yet clear if any of their clients would point the fin­ger at Jam­meh to save their own skins. But the former dic­ta­tor will find it hard to claim ig­no­rance. A few weeks after San­deng’s death, when the UN and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional de­manded an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Jam­meh pub­licly told them to ‘go to hell’, say­ing it was ‘re­ally com­mon’ for peo­ple to ‘die in cus­tody or dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tions’.

Nor can he re­al­is­ti­cally claim that his hench­men were not act­ing on his or­ders: Jam­meh was as ruth­less with his own un­der­lings as he was to his en­e­mies, throw­ing them in jail for the slight­est dis­obe­di­ence. As Brody puts it, ‘The mur­der of a prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion leader is un­likely to have hap­pened with­out Jam­meh’s ex­press ap­proval.’

Brody has de­voted most of his work­ing life to hu­man rights – un­sur­pris­ingly, per­haps, for the son of a Jewish Holo­caust sur­vivor, who took him on his first civil rights demo aged just eight. Brody cam­paigned against the Viet­nam War, and earned his hu­man rights cre­den­tials by in­ves­ti­gat­ing atroc­i­ties by the Us-backed Con­tras in Nicaragua, which led to Con­gres­sional hear­ings (and Pres­i­dent Rea­gan call­ing him a ‘San­din­ista agent’).

His pur­suit of dic­ta­tors be­gan 20 years ago, when he helped Hu­man Rights Watch, the ad­vo­cacy body he works for, draft the le­gal case against the Chilean dic­ta­tor Au­gusto Pinochet, who spent 16 months un­der house ar­rest in the UK while Bri­tain’s law lords de­bated an ex­tra­di­tion re­quest from Spain. While Jack Straw, the then Home Sec­re­tary, even­tu­ally let Pinochet re­turn to Chile on med­i­cal grounds, it was still a land­mark case, es­tab­lish­ing the prin­ci­ple that ex-tyrants could be tried any­where in the world.

Brody has since worked every­where from Haiti to East Ti­mor, as well as prob­ing abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guan­tanamo, al­though most of his later ca­reer has been taken up by the Habré case, which be­gan promis­ingly. Early on, Brody got hold of huge stacks of se­cret po­lice files de­tail­ing tor­ture and killings in ‘La Piscine’, an un­der­ground pri­son con­verted from a swim­ming pool.

Even the Sene­galese gov­ern­ment played ball at first, putting Habré un­der house ar­rest in 2000. But the process to try him then stalled. Sene­gal’s ruler, Ab­doulaye Wade, feared the con­se­quences of break­ing the gentle­men’s agree­ment that African lead­ers did not air each other’s dirty se­crets. By 2011, the gov­ern­ment was in­sist­ing there would be no trial; Brody con­sid­ered giv­ing up.

‘At that point, even my col­leagues at Hu­man Rights Watch were rolling their eyes,’ he ad­mits.

In 2012, how­ever, Wade lost an elec­tion to the re­form-minded Macky Sall, who had made it an elec­tion pledge for the trial to go ahead. Three years later, Habré was dragged lit­er­ally scream­ing and kick­ing into court – the first time an African leader had been tried and con­victed on African soil.

As with the Habré case, Brody ar­gues that get­ting Gam­bia’s vic­tims to cam­paign for jus­tice puts them at the cen­tre of the case, rather than some dis­tant pros­e­cu­tor in The Hague. But first there is the mat­ter of get­ting Jam­meh into court in the first place. So will Obiang ever hand him over?

At first glance, Obiang has every rea­son to show sol­i­dar­ity with his guest. Like Jam­meh, he is a bru­tal, para­noid klep­to­crat, who lives in jus­ti­fi­able fear of be­ing over­thrown. In 2004, he was the tar­get of the failed ‘Wonga Coup’, which ended with Bri­tish mer­ce­nary Si­mon Mann spend­ing 20 months in Obiang’s Black Beach pri­son. Like Jam­meh, Obiang is an avowed anti-colo­nial­ist and un­likely to re­spond kindly to pressure from an Amer­i­can hu­man rights lawyer.

He might, how­ever, lis­ten to fel­low African lead­ers, among whom he likes to see him­self as an el­der states­man. The ques­tion is how hard those other lead­ers are will­ing to push. Last year, a se­nior source in the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States, the re­gional power bloc that bro­kered Jam­meh’s asy­lum deal, told The Tele­graph that get­ting Jam­meh back was not a pri­or­ity, ‘be­cause we don’t want to be seen break­ing the deal that got him to step down’.

Brody, though, knows how to be a diplo­mat as well as a lawyer. Last month, he filed a re­quest to the gov­ern­ment of Ghana, pre­sent­ing it with ev­i­dence that Jam­meh had or­dered the mas­sacre of 44 Ghana­ians back in 2005. The vic­tims were migrant job-seek­ers head­ing for Europe, whom Jam­meh’s para­noid se­cu­rity forces mis­took for a team of for­eign mer­ce­nar­ies plan­ning a coup. By high­light­ing their case as well, Brody hopes that the Ghana­ian gov­ern­ment will also join the calls for Obiang to hand Jam­meh over. ‘This means we now have two na­tions with an in­ter­est in a trial, rather than just one,’ Brody says.

So far, Obiang has re­mained guarded about any plans for his guest. In Jan­uary, in a rare TV in­ter­view, he said that any ex­tra­di­tion re­quest would be ‘stud­ied by his lawyers’. While he later ap­peared to re­tract that state­ment, in­sist­ing Jam­meh ‘must be pro­tected’, many took it as a sign that like any other wily dic­ta­tor, Obiang knows the im­por­tance of keep­ing his op­tions open. Hand­ing Jam­meh over for trial could be a use­ful bar­gain­ing chip some day.

Be­sides, at 76, Obiang won’t be around for ever. Any suc­ces­sor might be per­suaded to change his mind, be it to take the coun­try on a new demo­cratic path, or sim­ply to get the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity off his back. True, that change of lead­er­ship may not come for a while yet – Robert Mu­gabe was 93 when ousted last year. But when it does, a cer­tain Brook­lyn lawyer and his wit­nesses will be wait­ing.

‘No­body wants it to take years – least of all me,’ Brody adds. ‘But we’re not go­ing away.’

Jam­meh pub­licly de­clared it was ‘re­ally com­mon’ for peo­ple to ‘die in cus­tody or dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tions’

Above Brody dis­cusses the trial of Chad’s His­sène Habré with jour­nal­ists; Habré is es­corted into court, both 2015

3. Robert Mu­gabe, 5.Than Shwe 7. Hosni Mubarak

From left Rel­a­tives of Jam­meh’s vic­tims demon­strate in Banjul; a statue to Jam­meh is draped in a protest T-shirt

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