By Yankuba Jallow
Neneh M.C. Cham, a private legal practitioner has called on Gambia Government to provide adequate funding to the National Agency for Legal Aid in order to enable it fulfill its mandate
Cham was enrolled into the Gambian Bar in 2000 and since then she has been in private legal practice.
She said NALA was established in 2008 by the Gambia Government to help people access justice.
“It is not resourced at all. It could not benefit the people particularly those who need it the most at the time,” she said.
NALA is subvented by the Government through the Ministry of Justice.
She said how well Legal Aid does depend on how much money it gets from Ministry of Justice.
“The Legal Aid Act states that it should have its own independent budget,” she said.
She said NALA gets any amount from the Ministry whether it is enough or not.
She highlighted that there has been progress in the past two years, but more needs to be done.
“NALA is the hope for many Gambians who would be affected by the law and they would need representation and they cannot afford it,” she said.
Cham appeared before the TRRC on the 30th March 2021 to testify on her encounter with the police and other security outfits under the Jammeh’s regime. She informed the truth commission that she used to encounter resistance from the police in providing information regarding the whereabouts of some of the people especially politicians, those charged with treason and related offences as well as other cases in which former President Yahya Jammeh had vested interest in such as civil servants. She explained that the security personnel used to conveniently give excuses that the order is from the “Top” when denying her access to some of her clients. The senior lawyer said at times, the officers on duty would give excuse that a particular senior officer was not around and would ask her to come at a later time.
She said she participated in three different treason trials and in all cases, the accused persons complained of torture.
“Torture was basically a State policy to be applied to people in cases in which the ex-President had interest in,” Essa Faal, the Commission’s Lead Counsel quizzed.
“I will agree,” Cham said.
She added that at times her clients have told her that while they were being tortured, the torturers would be insulting them and would asked them why they hate the President.
“Would you say there was a State policy to torture suspects,” Faal asked.
“Sure, from first-hand, my clients. I believe it was a State policy because it was happening routinely,” she said.
She said the prison wardens at Mile 2 used to deny her access to her clients by asking her to come back at a later time.
“I came to understand that they were doing that to allow my clients to heal from the torture. It was the reason for stalling lawyers’ access to clients,” she said.
On the Ministry of Justice, Lawyer Cham said the Ministry also helped the Executive to abuse the process of the courts and interfere in the Judiciary. However, she said there were instances where State Counsels would write their opinions regarding a case that there is no prima facie case, but the cases would find their way to the courts.
In the case of the State and six journalists in 2009, Lawyer Cham said she was part of the Defence team. She explained that there was no prima facie case against Bai Emil Touray, but the Court went ahead to convict him on the basis that he refused to help the NIA in their investigations.
She said in the cases of Babou Janha and Hamadi Sowe, the court convicted them “with zero evidence”. In both cases according to her, the accused persons alleged torture and during the trial within trial, their confessions were rejected by the Court. Despite the lack of evidence, she said the court-martial went ahead and convicted them. She said they wanted to appeal their conviction, but there was no record of proceedings from the court-martial.
She told the TRRC that one Amie Sey was charged with Giving False Information to a Public Officer only for writing to the State House to seeking scholarship for her daughter.
She said majority of the charges proffered against people were giving false information, abuse of office and neglect of official duty- charges she referred to as frivolous and ridiculous.
She said the former President ensured that there was no separation of powers and this was why he interfered in the work of the Judiciary.
She said there were instances when some judges insult lawyers and there were instances when lawyers walked out of courts.
She said a 17-year-old girl, who was accused of killing her husband was detained for two years in an adult cell without a charge leveled against her. She explained as the Defence Counsel, she helped the girl to access justice. She said there was no trace of the police file and the high court Judge Almami Taal (as he then was) discharged her. She alleged that the girl was also tortured while under detention.