The Director General of what was former President Yahya Jammeh’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA), now State Intelligence Services (SIS), Ousman Sowe has told the Truth Reconciliation Reparation Commission (TRRC) that was shocked when he saw the NIA torture chamber located at the agency’s headquarters.
Concealment of evidence in the NIA “Torture chamber”
“When you took over, there was a tortured at the NIA True or False?” The Witness responded “True!”
The lead counsel asked the witness to give a description to the Commission of the NIA torture chamber as he found it when he took over.
“It was a room with an iron bed fixed firmly on the floor, red in color, signaling danger.”
Ousman Sowe confirmed, as stated by witnesses, that “There were shackles attached to the Walls”.
Mr. Sowe revealed that he ordered that the torture table be cut off, the chains on the walls be removed and the room be painted in white color.
On how he came to know the torture Chamber, he said he was on a tour of the NIA complex and saw it. The Lead Cousel, Essa Faal told Ousman Sowe that through his order, he has removed the instruments meant for torture and concealed the character of the chamber to a simple office.
Evidence revealed that the SIS director general signed 8 contracts with GIGO Construction for different tasked, including the renovation of the guard room.
There was no torture bed and shackles in Bambadinka which Ousman Sowe said was preserved because they came to realized that the TRRC will have an interest to view it.
Mr. Sowe testified that he knew that the torture chamber at the NIA would be at the center of Investigations but did not know that it would be needed in the case of Solo Sandeng case.
Essa Faal told Sowe that everyone in The Gambia knew that the NIA was the center of rights violations and that it was a naked fact that the NIA would be investigated.
“You knew that the Human Rights Violations at the NIA would be investigated?” asked Counsel Faal.
“I did not know it early, I didn’t know as I knew today that the room would be of immense interest to the commission”, Ousman, Sowe replied.
The lead counsel further told the witness that “We have witnesses who said they were placed on the bed and their hands and legs tight to the bed and beaten mercilessly.”
From what you have seen in the room would you say the witnesses were right”, asked Lead Counsel. Ousman Sowe responded, “Truthful”!
The NIA “Talk True” torture machine”
On the issue of the Talk True torture Machine that was used to force detainees to confess, the witness replied that it was “said to be used in investigations”. To which Counsel Faal told Ousman that “This was a machine used to torture people and not ‘said to be’“.
“Tell us the actuals?” Faal quizzed. Ousman Sowe said the torture machine was a machine he did not heard up until 2003, “I did not see the machine until when I took over as Officer Commanding Investigations.”
“I saw what I now come to know” but before the witness finished with his explanations, Faal interrupted and told him that he was making possible deniability and as a senior officer he can’t be there for 12 years without seeing the machine.
“What did you do with the machine when it was officially handed over to you to use in Investigations?”
“I was an investigation chief for 8 months but I can’t remember any day using the machine,” Sowe testified.
I will take responsibility if it happens with my instructions. And if it happens in that period without my instructions by a staff under me, I will apologize.
“What did you do with the machine?” Essa Faal asked. “Nothing. It was kept in the stores” Ousman Sowe replied. He added that apart from the machine, he did not inherit any torture gadgets.
The Counsel told him that he took over more sophisticated talk true machines, but the witness responded in the negative.
“Did you destroy any such equipment?” Essa Faal asked. “Never!” Sowe responded.
Responsibility in destroying NIA “crime scenes”
“You knew the rule of evidence…” Counsel Faal suggested. “Correct!” replied Sowe.
At this juncture Faal referred him to the TRRC Act which states that concealment of evidence should be investigated by the commission.
“I didn’t know that I was tampering with evidence, I know it today”, Sowe replied.
Faal told the witness that he is well educated on intelligence and diplomacy matters.
Sowe said the torture chamber was a “Fear Inspiring” which he changed to be “Calmness normalcy”.
Ousman Sowe later agreed that the torture chamber was an evidence scene and that by renovating the room, he changed the character of the evidence. Meaning he tampered with the evidence. Yet, Sowe said he did not do it on any ulterior motive.
“You violated all the rules in the book!” Counsel Faal frowned. In response Sowe said if he had known this earlier he would not have done it. To which Counsel Faal reminded him that the ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Sowe said the reason why he destroyed the torture equipment at the chamber and renovated it was in connection to the slogan “New Gambia” that following the ousting of Yahya Jammeh and to signal to his staff that business at the SIS would not be as it used to be under former President Yahya Jammeh.
“So, when I cut of that bed, painted the room, it was to send a clear message that they were not only cutting off but cutting on everything relating to torture”.
The TRRC Lead Counsel Essa Faal told Ousman Sowe that when the commission went to the NIA, he never told them about the torture chambers.
He added that he only admitted that there was a torture chamber when he was confronted by the Investigators.
Sowe in response said his men led the Commission to tour the NIA premises. But Counsel Faal insisted that the only thing the Commssion found in the torture chamber was “remains”.
“Why didn’t you preserve the room just as you did for Bambadinka? Is it because you have nothing to conceal” the lead counsel suggested. The witness said the purpose of rehabilitating the NIA Headquarters was not to destroyed or conceal evidence.
Overall, the torture room was not the only place tampered with as the NIA had other detention facilities around the country.
Documents from other NIA directors
According to the TRRC findings, 561 people are for now known to have been illegally detained by NIA. 295 of whom were held more than the 72 hours. The current intelligence service could not explain the whereabouts and faith of certain detainees. Counsel Faal therefore asked current Gambia intelligence Chief Ousman Sowe whether the NIA was a center for unlawful detention.
In response the witness said that was true and that it was not correct that he burned documents, especially those in the hands of late deputy director of the NIA, Louis Gomez.
Ousman Sowe said “I was not privy to the existence of documents in Gomez’s office. But the documents in former director general Yankuba Badjie’s office are with me and I would avail them to the commission”.
He further disputed to be given advised not to alter the NIA, notwithstanding, he accepted that Yankuba Badjie was supposed to be one of legal advisers.
The Lead Counsel, Essa Faal applied for the Commission to make an order that all documents in Louis Gomez office be handed over to the TRRC which was granted.
Recruitment and institutional memory of NIA
Responding to questions from Dr. Lamin J. Sise, Chairman of the Commission, Ousman Sowe said recruitment to work as intelligence officer are opened while appointments also do happen by the director and his deputy.
He added that if the applicant’s grade is more than grade 10, the leadership makes recommendations to the Secretary General and Permanent secretary, Personnel Management Office.
When it was further put to the witness that more than 200 of the intelligence operatives barely read or write, Ousman Sowe dismissed it to be false. However, the lead Counsel Faal hinted to Sowe that the recruitment of the NIA was based on tribalism.
The Commission’s deputy Chair, Adelaide Sosseh, told the witness that he did not only destroy the torture chamber from the NIA but to the public as well. She also told the witness that memorialization on Transitional Justice should not be underrated.
She asked Ousman Sowe that the previous pictures of the NIA premises, the metal bed and shackles be submitted to be of great help towards memorialization.
In his concluding remarks, Ousman Sowe said he apologized for all wrongs made by the Intelligence service he inherited. According to Sowe, the State intelligence service (SIS) and other sister agencies are here for the country as he calls for a “Never Again” repeat of the deeds in former president Yahya Jammeh’s era.