By Nelson Manneh
Mr. Samsideen Conteh, a former Gambian magistrate, on Wednesday told the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) that the dismissal of judges and magistrates based on decisions they made, became worst when Emmanuel Fagbenle was appointed as Chief Justice of The Gambia.
The witness said he was dismissed on grounds that he presided over the case of Sait Matty Jaw, a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia (UTG) and his desire to conduct research on good governance, rule of law and also sounded people opinions on the state of affairs.
Witness Conteh said the previous government led by former President Yahya Jammeh was suspicious of any information surrounding human rights, democracy, and good governance, because that would expose the violations meted out to citizens.
“Mr. Jaw and his co-researchers were charged with Conspiracy to commit misdemeanor, failure to register a business, and two counts of disobedience to statutory duty,” he said.
Conteh said while in his Chambers waiting for the accused persons to get lawyers, he received a call from late Buba Jawo, who spoke to him about bail. He said he did not understand, but suspected that the State had interest in the case. He said the call put pressure on him because he discovered that the government had interest in the case because the two other accused persons were not Gambians. However, he said in considering bail for the defendants, he asked about the seriousness of the offense and whether the accused persons were at flight risk.
According to him, he later decided to grant them bail in the sum of D5, 000,000 which was regarded as excessive. But he said the reason for that was because the two others were non-Gambians. He said he also put into consideration his safety as one of his seniors was already in trouble for granting bail to accused persons who later absconded and the magistrate was compelled to produce them. The former magistrate recollected two days later, the foreigners changed their plea of not guilty to guilty, and then he convicted them and fined them D15, 000 on each of the four counts. They paid the sum and fled the jurisdiction, he added.
“Mr. Jaw maintained his plea of not guilty and after the prosecution closed its case, his attorney, Lamin S. Camara, filed a ‘No case to answer,’ meaning the prosecution did not have enough evidence or did not meet the threshold for the defence to enter their defence,” he explained.
He said based on that, he discharged and acquitted Sait Matty Jaw, and as a result of that, he got fired from his job. The witness revealed that when he reported to work, Momodou S.M Jallow, the Principal Magistrate at the time, informed him that the Chief Justice had ordered that he go home immediately because Yahya Jammeh wasn’t happy with him.
“The trend of firing judges and magistrates in connection to decisions they made became worst when Emmanuel Fagbenle was appointed as CJ (Chief Justice). Under Fagbenle’s tenure, Supreme Court Judges, Abdoukarim Semega Janneh and Raymond Sock were all fired,” he said.
Conteh added that he got information that it was former Attorney General, Mama Fatima Singhateh, who influenced his dismissal. He said the President would not dismiss a judge or magistrate without the consent of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Mr Conteh testified that he believed that former Acting Attorney General, Justice Mahoney, was an independent person and would not influence Jammeh to do otherwise.
“The Jammeh regime did not only stop at firing judicial staff, but also wrote letters to the judiciary instructing speedy trial in cases they had interest in,” he said.
Conteh said the current Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Dawda Jallow, was not exempted from the firings and seizure of passports. He alleged that former Central River Region Governor, Nganyi Touray, micromanaged magistrates posted in his region. However, he said when he was serving in CRR as a travelling magistrate, he never accepted to be influenced by Mr. Touray. He said he even wrote a letter threatening to arrest him (Touray), but he rescinded giving Touray the letter.
Conteh was Born in Faraba Banta on 17th August 1982. He is currently residing in Kens, United States of America, Conteh recollected that as a travelling magistrate, the Governor of CRR was asked to provide him with accommodation, but at some point, he was not allowed to stay there and had to look for a place for himself. He said the conditions of service were bad and this was why magistrates were scarce, saying he even attempted to leave the job.
According to him, the vehicle assigned to him by the Judiciary at some point had a breakdown and he took his own money to repair it. He said shortly after that, he had some issues with then governor, Nganyi Touray, relating to false information charge meted out to someone who wrote a petition against the said governor. He said he decided to transfer the case to Banjul because the President who was petitioned was based in Banjul. He said when he made that decision, Governor Touray wasn’t happy with his decision. The witness alleged that the Governor used to influence some magistrates who were around the area.
“Courts are the last hope for the poor and vulnerable which should protect the minority from issues that would hamper their life,” he said.
Conteh said allowing judicial interference would allow powerful people in society to oppress the weak, adding that the courts are tools to maintain law and order because without that, people will take the laws into their own hands.
“As a magistrate, you should do your best to serve with integrity and not allow to be used by the President and his cohorts to suppress people,” he added.
He said former Governor Touray went further to report him to the Chief Justice for merely doing his job and as a result, then CJ, Agimang transferred him to Farafenni. He said as a travelling magistrate, he presided over cases in police stations and his main concern was to be a servant of the people and he did not allow anyone to interfere with his work. He said Farafenni was better because they had a court. Conteh recollected that he used to wake up at 5am, prepare for work and by 6am, he would join public transport to go to work at the Essau Court.
Conteh said the government at the time gave less regard to his work and there was zero motivation which angered him because in spite of all the good work he was doing, when Agimang was dismissed, Ali Chawhan was appointed whom he said one day invited him for a meeting and informed him that he was not reporting to work.
However, he said he told the CJ that his car had a breakdown. And despite he was sitting in Essau, the Chief Justice assigned the late Buba Jawo, Master of the High Court to go and confirm whether he was indeed sitting in Essau.
He said upon Jawo’s visit, he was vindicated which earned him lot of respect from the Chief Justice who later brought him closer to his office as a researcher on customary law and also created the Judicial Institute for the training of magistrates and support staff.
Conteh graduated from Gambia College with a Higher Teachers Certificate (HTC) before acquiring his degree at the University of the Gambia (UTG). He testified that he joined UTG in 2008 to do an LLB Course and upon completion in 2012, he joined the Judiciary briefly as a 1st Class Magistrate, but later joined the Law School to acquire his Bar Program for one year. Upon completion of his Bar, he was posted to Central River Region, North. Prior to that, he did his induction training under former Principal Magistrate Taiwo Ade Alagbe of Banjul Magistrates Court.
Mr. Conteh testified that Justice Emmanuel Agim (who thought him at the University) was the Chief Justice when he was appointed as a magistrate.