By Yankuba Jallow
Gambia’s central prison, Mile 2, is still congested despite the attempt by the Judiciary to expedite hearing of criminal cases.
The current Government promised to reform the Judiciary. However, the courts are battling to conclude cases before them. In The Gambia, it is unusual for the courts to decide criminal cases within a year. Cases often last for several years before they are decided.
The Judiciary can help in decongesting the prisons especially during the era of Covid-19 pandemic. The courts explored different mechanisms to help in this, but the impact is not huge, according to different stakeholders in the justice sector.
The Gambia was hit by the wave of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 forcing the Government to come up with measures to curb the spread of the virus. The courts also followed suit and suspended public hearings for some time before resuming only to hear emergency cases such as matters of bail.
One of the guidelines for covid-19 is for people to practice social distancing or safe-spacing. Mile 2, is housing hundreds of inmates and is still congested.
The Chief Justice directed courts during the peak period of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 to suspend all court sittings except for emergency cases including bail applications. There were months that the courts dedicated to hearing criminal cases.
All these interventions were geared towards helping decongesting the prisons. However, the impact is very minimal as far as our investigation is concerned.
There are people at Mile 2 who have been incarcerated for years and their cases are still not concluded. At the High Court, most of the judges have over a hundred cases to preside over and with the slow nature of hearing cases, the courts take several years before concluding cases.
Superintendent Molamin Ceesay, the public relations officer of the Gambia Prisons Service said the prisons are still congested. He said there are efforts to help decongest the cells, but its impact is principally on police detainees.
“The prisons are still congested,” he said.
He detailed that there was a meeting of stakeholders involving the prisons, the Judiciary, the Ministryof Justice and National Agency for Legal Aid to discuss the issue.
Sheriff B. Tabally, the Master of the High Court said there were months that the courts dedicated to hearing criminal cases in order to expedite them. He said he does not have data or statistic at the moment, but was quick to add that the magistrate’s courts have granted bail to several people. He said the magistrate’s courts in the month of July and August this year will be hearing criminal cases and bail applications.
Ahmed Kemo Ceesay, the Executive Secretary of the National Agency for Legal Aid said his institution managed to secure bail for some people during this time including cases where the State opposed bail. However, he said this is not sufficient as there are many people in detention who do not have legal representation. He added that there are cases which NALA does not deal with including drug related cases. He mentioned that the impact of the intervention of the Judiciary is minimal (not huge).
In The Gambia, criminal trials take years before they are completed. There are cases that have been going on for years and still not determined.
The Judiciary came up with their strategic plan in which timeliness of hearing cases is mentioned as their core value.