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.
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