By Yaya Dampha
The long practice of parading suspects by the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) has for the first time been questioned by Gambian lawyers, who described it as ‘‘trial by media.’’ ‘‘Many a times accused persons are arrested and paraded on GRTS and convicted by the Television before even going to court,’’ Lawyer Sagarr Jahateh, a member of the Gambia Bar Association, said on Tuesday 26 January 2010, as part of a group presentation at a two day seminar in Gambia. The seminar, which commenced last Wednesday, is part of a weeklong UK government funded Legal Capacity Building project. It takes the form of a series of activities of the Gambia Bar Association (GBA) such as seminars, panel discussions, lectures, and a press conference. On day two of the seminar, GRTS’ long term practice of parading suspects, which has since drawn wider criticism among the public, caught the attention of the Gambian lawyers, who have themselves received a fear share of public criticism for not doing enough to highlight legal violations like this. According to Lawyer Sagarr Jahateh, her group has condemned the act which they described as ‘‘trial by media and a gross human rights violation’’. She promised, however, that the human rights unit being created under the Bar Association will take it as a responsibility to combat such practices. ‘‘Lawyers are expected to uphold the rule of law and promote human rights,’’ she said. ‘‘The Bar needs to improve in advocacy, defending rights and freedom of expression.’’ Lawyer Jahateh also spoke of the need for the Bar to have a human rights unit to take care of litigations and amendment of laws that are not in conformity with constitutional provisions. And on access to justice, she said the human rights unit will deal with defending of prisoners, issues of detentions and prison conditions. She added that the unit will also seek funding for the legal Aid Committee, ‘‘because lawyers are not willing to take such cases, because of poor remuneration.’’ Lawyer Sagarr’s remark will certainly be welcomed by human rights bodies who have largely grown hopeless of the chances of righting the many wrongs abound in the country’s legal system. Parading of suspects has especially been a disturbing source of anxiety for many families who have had their loved one humiliated, only for it to emerge that they were not guilty after all. Both the Gambia Police Force and the country’s national broadcaster have come under attack for the practice, as it in the invitation of the former that the latter parade victims. Lawyer Sagarr and her group forwarded a series of recommendations for implementation. Among others, they argued that since the legal practitioners Act does not cover the Bar, there is a need to amend it to include the Bar; and that the rule of courts is amended, as well as Article 21, and section 50 of the constitution. According to Lawyer Sagarr, interested members of the Bar will form a human rights litigation committee to represent victims of human rights violations. This unit, she said, will also engage on research and legal educational activities. Among various other pertinent issues, the group of lawyers discussed the need for legal education, through establishment of a law school, continuing legal education for lawyers, establish channels of communication to allow members of the Bar to comment on legislation before laws are passed in parliament; establish linkage between the Bar and other professional organizations; establish linkage with the media, to ensure articles are scrutinized by lawyers before publication, to avoid the risk of libel, sedition among other related crimes under the existing laws. The Gambian lawyers are also looking forward to establishing a linkage between the public and private media on areas of advocacy, which, they envisaged, will look closely at local government laws, and the relations of the local authorities, such as Commissioners, National Assembly members, Area Council chairmen, district chiefs, councillors and Alkalos, to avoid contradiction among their authorities.
By Yaya Dampha