Witnesses started Monday to testify to a truth and reconciliation commission in The Gambia modelled on the South African commission set up to investigate rights violations during the apartheid era.

The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) in The Gambia is tasked with investigating rights violations committed by the 22-year regime of former president Yahya Jammeh.

Yahya Jammeh was chased from power in 2016 after he tried to steal elections to hang onto power.

Hundreds turned up to follow the hearings held in an exhibition hall of a hotel in the capital, Banjul. The hearings are followed by millions across the country on live radio and television broadcasts.

Gambian President Adama Barrow has called the commission a step towards national healing and a way of offering closure to victims and families.

In a statement issued Monday, the London-based rights group, Amnesty International, hailed the start of hearings before the TRRC, describing it as “an important initial step towards security justice, truth and reparations” in The Gambia.

The Executive Secretary of TRRC, Baba Jallow, is himself a victim. A journalist, he was forced into exile in 2000 by what he describes as threats from troops loyal to Yahya Jammeh.

Yahya Jammeh’s reign of terror was marked by horrendous rights violations, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, imprisonment of political opponents and journalists.

One of the first witnesses to testify on Monday is a former deputy police inspector general, Ebrima Chongwan, who testified to being tortured in a rat-infested prison where a government officials threatened him with execution, going to the extent of putting a gun into his mouth.

In one incident in 2005, the regime of Yahya Jammeh reportedly executed 52 migrants from neighboring Senegal. The mortal remains of the victims were allegedly dumped into the sea.

The former tyrant of The Gambia lives in self-imposed exile in Equatorial Guinea.

TRRC members are drawn from all the regions of the country, from its five main ethnic groups and two religions. It is led by a retired UN diplomat, Lamin Sise.

The commission has authority to recommend prosecution of perpetrators, including recommending financial compensation to victims.

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