by Bekai Njie
Banjul – Investigators urged Gambia's government to pursue criminal charges against those responsible for crimes committed under ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh, in a long-awaited reported handed to the president on Thursday.
Rights groups have long pushed for prosecutions for the litany of alleged abuses -- such as the use of death squads -- committed during Jammeh's 22-year rule which ended in 2017.
The final report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) was originally scheduled for release in July but has been delayed several times.
Publishing the report is politically sensitive in the West African country, where Jammeh has significant support.
The nation of two million people is also in the middle of a presidential campaign in which the possible return of the former dictator from exile has been a central theme.
TRRC officials handed President Adama Barrow their findings in a ceremony in the capital Banjul, an AFP journalist saw.
A TRRC statement delivered to the press said that it contains recommendations to pursue charges against people who "bear the greatest responsibility for human rights violations and abuses".
The findings of the truth panel come after more than two years of hearings into Jammeh-era crimes.
Witnesses gave chilling evidence about state-sanctioned torture, death squads, rape and witch hunts, often at the hands of the "Junglers", as Jammeh's death squads were known.
The TRRC has not been empowered to prosecute those responsible for crimes, and the contents of its report will not immediately be made public.
Barrow is expected to release a white paper within six months on how to implement its recommendations.
Addressing a news conference in Banjul, the president promised to deliver the white paper on time and assured victims that "justice will be done".
Jammeh 'top of the list'
Rights groups, which were eagerly awaiting the report, welcomed the news that the TRRC is urging prosecutions.
Reed Brody, a human rights lawyer who works with Jammeh-era victims, said in a statement that "there is no doubt that Yahya Jammeh is at the top of the list of former officials whose prosecutions it is recommending".
Amnesty International also said in a statement that The Gambia must bring charges against wrongdoers to ensure that "state-sponsored human rights violations are never repeated".
Jammeh seized power in 1994 as part of a bloodless military coup in The Gambia -- the smallest country in mainland Africa.
He was then repeatedly re-elected in disputed circumstances until Barrow, who was then a relative unknown, defeated him at the ballot box in December 2016.
After a six-week crisis that led to military intervention by other West African states, Jammeh was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea.
Despite the magnitude of abuse allegations facing Jammeh, the 56-year-old retains a considerable following in The Gambia.
Many supporters are pushing for his return from exile.
His influence has been a key issue in the run-up to a presidential election on December 4 -- the first since the ex-dictator's departure.
Jammeh addressed a campaign rally remotely this month, arguing that Barrow had "rigged" the 2016 elections.
Barrow, for his part, sought an alliance with Jammeh's APRC party in September -- a move viewed by some as an electoral ploy.
Rights activists denounced the alliance, which also stirred fears that it could lead to Jammeh's return.
But Jammeh subsequently disavowed the electoral pact, which he said was taken without his knowledge, and his supporters have formed a rival party.