The Ministry of Justice said it accepted all but two of the 265 recommendations made by a commission that probed alleged crimes committed by the state under the despotic former leader from July 1994 to January 2017.
Jammeh is living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, which has no extradition treaty with The Gambia.
The government said it would prosecute all 70 alleged perpetrators named in the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s twice-delayed report, including former vice president Isatou Njie-Saidy and members of the so-called “Junglers” hit squad.
“For 22 years, Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron fist,” the government wrote in a white paper.
“During his regime, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, enforced disappearances, and numerous grievous human rights violations became part and parcel of his military Junta.”
Abdoulie Fatty, a former local legal consultant for the commission, called the government’s decision “unprecedented”.
“This level of acceptance of recommendations by government is extraordinary,” he said.
“The fact that there is strong emphasis for the prosecution of Jammeh and those who bear the greatest responsibility sends a strong message that government is serious about pursuing him and ensuring that he’s held accountable for his crimes.”
The government said it was developing a “prosecution strategy” and would set up a special court located within The Gambia, with “the option of holding sittings in other countries”.
The truth commission had recommended prosecuting Jammeh and his accomplices in an internationalised tribunal in another West African country.
“Impunity is a kind of incentive that we are not prepared to serve perpetrators,” Justice Minister Dawda Jallow said in a speech Wednesday.
“Their resolve to commit these atrocities cannot be stronger than our collective will as a society to hold them to account.”
– ‘Not much choice’ –
The truth commission found that 240 to 250 people, including AFP journalist Deyda Hydara, were killed by the state during the eccentric ex-leader’s rule.
Rights activists accuse Jammeh, who turned 57 on Wednesday, of a litany of crimes, from using death squads to sponsoring witch hunts.
The former president has also been accused of administering phony HIV “treatment” programmes and of the massacre of some 50 African migrants in 2005.
The commission recommended prosecuting the former president and 69 other alleged perpetrators. The government had until Wednesday to respond.
Jammeh was forced into exile in early 2017 after his shock electoral defeat to current President Adama Barrow and a six-week crisis that led to military intervention by other West African states.
Barrow, who was re-elected in December, last year formed a political alliance with Jammeh’s former party and nominated two known Jammeh supporters as speaker and deputy speaker of parliament.
“Barrow and his government know that the world is watching, [so] they did not have much choice but to accept the TRRC recommendations,” said Nana-Jo N’dow, the founder of an NGO that campaigns against enforced disappearances and summary executions, whose own father disappeared in 2013.
“The question now is whether Barrow follows through on these recommendations, and swiftly.”
– ‘Important and meaningful step forward’ –
Michele Eken, a West Africa researcher with Amnesty International, said she hoped the justice ministry will have enough resources to “do the job properly”.
“The fact that the minister held a press conference and reassured victims and civil society is a positive step and we really hope that the minister will stay its course,” she said.
The government said it would prosecute Jammeh for the rape of the beauty queen Fatou Jallow, the murder of journalist Hydara and the unlawful disappearances of other victims.
For Fatoumatta Sandeng, spokeswoman for the Jammeh2Justice campaign, Wednesday’s announcement is just the next step in a long healing process.
Her own father, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a member of the opposition United Democratic Party, was tortured and killed by security services in 2016.
“Truth and reconciliation commissions have been launched in many countries,” she said, adding that their recommendations are often ignored.
“The most important work right now is to make sure the recommendations are respected, implemented, and you don’t just put it aside like other commissions.”
Reed Brody, a lawyer with the International Commission of Jurists who works with Jammeh’s victims, said the government must follow up with concrete actions.
“Laws still have to be enacted, a court has to be established, cases have to be prepared, and Yahya Jammeh has to be brought into custody,” he said.