Gambians file suit against ex-leader over alleged HIV 'cure'

DAKAR, Senegal — Three survivors of a supposed HIV treatment program run by Gambia's former leader Yahya Jammeh featuring what he called an herbal remedy "cure" filed a lawsuit Thursday against him, claiming they suffered under the forced regimen.

This is the first time Jammeh has been sued in a Gambian court over alleged abuses during his 22-year rule of this tiny West African nation, the advocacy group AIDS-Free World said.

Jammeh's program was "the most egregious premeditated assault on people living with HIV and AIDS in the history of the global AIDS crisis," said Sarah Bosha, the group's legal research and policy associate.

Survivors Fatou Jatta, Lamin Ceesay and Ousman Sowe filed the lawsuit at the high court in the capital, Banjul. They seek financial damages and a declaration that their rights were violated.

"My experience in the presidential treatment program was a horror," Jatta said in the AIDS-Free World statement. "I could have lost my life."

Jammeh in 2007 declared his AIDS "cure" and launched the program, ordering patients to live in a facility and submit to his "treatment regimen" under armed guards' surveillance.

The "treatment" included foregoing antiretroviral drugs for an herbal concoction patients said often made them violently ill. Other concoctions were rubbed on them amid chanted prayers, and some sessions were broadcast on Gambian television without patient consent, survivors said.

Jammeh forced some 1,000 people, many of them part of HIV/AIDS organizations, to participate before the program was shuttered, and two people died, according to an earlier Amnesty International report.

An official with the program, Dr. Tamsir Mbowe, said during testimony to a commission of inquiry in April that 311 patients were treated from 2007 to 2012, according to AIDS-Free World.

"The precise number of deaths as a consequence of Jammeh's criminal mistreatment remains difficult to determine," the organization said.

"There is no cure for AIDS. When an individual of great power claimed otherwise, human health was jeopardized, lives were cut short and a deadly epidemic was prolonged — all in the service of the insatiable ego of Yahya Jammeh," Bosha said.

Jammeh has long been accused of human rights abuses during his rule that began after a bloodless coup in 1994. He lost December 2016 elections to now-President Adama Barrow and, after a political standoff, fled into exile to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017.

Bosha told The Associated Press that in exceptional situations, "the court can grant an order allowing for civil cases to proceed despite the absence of the defendant, as long as there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the court that the defendant was personally served."

Survivors said they hope the former president will be held accountable.

"I believe it is my responsibility to hold Jammeh to account," said survivor Ousman Sowe. "I knew that one day the real story would be told."

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