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BERLIN (AP) — A German court on Thursday convicted a Gambian man of murder and crimes against humanity for involvement in the killing of government critics in his West African homeland. The killings took place nearly two decades ago when, the court found, the man was a driver for a military unit deployed against opponents of then-President Yahya Jammeh.
The 48-year-old suspect, Bai Lowe, was given a life prison sentence by the state court in the district of Celle, which also convicted him of attempted murder. The court described it as the world's first sentence under international criminal law for human rights violations in Gambia.
Judges found that the defendant was a driver for a unit known as the “patrol team,” or “Junglers,” deployed by Jammeh to carry out illegal killings to suppress the opposition and intimidate the public.
Jammeh ruled Gambia, a country surrounded by Senegal except for a small Atlantic coastline, for 22 years. He lost a presidential election and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after initially refusing to step down.
Lowe was convicted of involvement in two killings and one attempted killing — the latter in December 2003, when the court said he drove the unit to the scene of the attempted assassination of a lawyer defending a person who had fallen out of grace with Jammeh. The victim lost a kidney but survived.
The unit killed a prominent journalist in 2004, using two vehicles disguised as taxis — one of them driven by the defendant, the court said. At some point before the end of 2006, it forced a former soldier who allegedly opposed Jammeh into a vehicle driven by the suspect, took him to a remote location, shot him and buried him, a court statement added.
The slain journalist, Deyda Hydara, was co-founder and managing editor of The Point newspaper and worked for Agence France Presse and Reporters Without Borders.
Lowe was arrested in Germany in March 2021. The defense had sought his acquittal.
The court pointed in a statement to 2013 and 2014 interviews in which the defendant “described his involvement ... in detail.” It said he stated through his lawyer at the trial that he hadn't actually been involved in the crimes and had given the interviews to strengthen the opposition against Jammeh.
Judges determined that that was a “protective claim." The court said they were convinced he had participated by statements from a large number of witnesses and information from publicly accessible sources, including the interviews and records of the Gambian Truth Commission.
Germany’s application of “universal jurisdiction,” allowing the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad, led last year to the first conviction of a senior Syrian official for crimes against humanity.
The former West Africa director of human rights group Article 19, Fatou Jagne Senghore, described Thursday's verdict as “an important signal in the fight against impunity.” She said that it should serve as a deterrent against committing human rights violations to security forces across Africa.
Reed Brody, a human rights lawyer who works with victims of Jammeh, said the verdict is “a small step on the long road to complete justice for the crimes of Yahya Jammeh’s regime.”
“More trials will soon be underway in Switzerland and the United States," he added. "And most importantly, the Gambian government appears committed, at long last, to establishing a special prosecutor’s office and a special international court to bring to justice Yahya Jammeh himself and his worst killers.”
Associated Press writer Abdoulie John in Banjul, Gambia, contributed to this report.