Relatives of people murdered under the regime of The Gambia’s former ruler Yahya Jammeh say they are outraged by the release of three self-confessed assassins.
Malick Jatta, Omar Jallow and Amadou Badjie were members of a paramilitary unit known as the “Junglers”.
They were released from army custody two weeks after appearing before the country’s truth commission.
“Our team was a hit squad for Yahya Jammeh,” Mr Badjie told the commission.
“We had blind loyalty for Yahya Jammeh,” he added
The three assassins had been arrested by military police in 2017, when President Adama Barrow took office after winning elections in December 2016 to end Mr Jammeh’s 22-year rule.
Mr Jammeh initially refused to give up power, but went into exile after regional states sent troops to force him to step down.
Mr Barrow set up the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate human rights violations allegedly committed during Mr Jammeh’s rule, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary detention.
Mr Jammeh has refused to cooperate with the commission.
Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou defended the decision to release the three, saying it would encourage other human rights violators to testify.
“The TRRC is not a court of law and one of its primary objectives is to establish the truth,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
“What we must not do is to scare people away from telling the truth because that will not be in anyone’s interest.”
Mr Hydara’s son Baba said it has been hard for the family, who have been seeking justice for 15 years, to hear about the hit squad.
He told AFP news agency that the testimony from Mr Jatta, who admitted being one of the men who shot his late father, had affected him.
“How it was planned, how he explained it, it’s like they did their homework. They studied. They really did research on how and where to hit him… It was very premeditated,” he said.
Reuters quoted him as saying the family was “appealing to the government to make sure that these confessed killers are not in our streets, are not in our communities”.
News of the three soldiers’ release has caused a public outcry, not just from relatives of the victims, journalist Saikou Suwareh Jabai told BBC’s Newsday.
But he said the TRRC is proving a healing process, helping victims and their families find closure.
During the hearings, the assassins accused Mr Jammeh of ordering numerous murders that they then carried out, including the notorious 2013 killings of two US-Gambian businessmen and veteran local journalist Deyda Hydara.
“I feel so disrespected as a mother that my government is setting free the men who confessed to the savage killing of my son,” Ya Mamie Cessay, mother of murdered businessman Alhaji Ceesay, was quoted by campaign group Human Rights Watch as saying.