The United States has leveled federal torture charges against Michael Correa, an alleged Gambian torturer found living in Denver (see Just Security’s prior coverage calling for such charges). Correa was originally arrested in 2019 on immigration charges (essentially overstaying his visa); he has been in immigration custody ever since. While these charges were pursued, the torture investigation was ongoing. The Department of Justice (DOJ) presented an indictment to a grand jury on June 2, 2020.

There were allegations that Correa—who was a member of the dreaded “Junglers” death squad in Gambia—was also involved the murder of two U.S. citizens, which might have supported charges under the United States’ extraterritorial murder statute. The indictment at present does not include any such charges, but focuses instead on accusations that Correa was involved in a conspiracy to commit torture and participated in the torture of six unnamed Gambian individuals after a 2006 coup attempt on the government of former President Yahya Jammeh.

This is only the third indictment issued under the federal torture statute. The first resulted in the conviction of Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The second was issued against a Bosnian alleged perpetrator, Sulejman Mugagic, found living in Utica, NY, who was later extradited to Bosnia-Hercegovina to stand trial for a broader array of war-time offenses.

Once Correa was in immigration custody, there were multiple calls for the investigation against him to be widened to include the strong torture allegations against him. Indeed, members of Congress wrote directly to Attorney General Barr and Acting Secretary Chad Wolf of the Department of Homeland Security to this effect. The letter noted that Congress has provided the DOJ’s Human Rights & Special Prosecutions Unit and other law enforcement entities with a number of tools to prosecute human rights crimes, even when committed abroad, but that these authorities have been underutilized.

Indeed, in connection with the passage of the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress cautioned that it “remains concerned by the large number of suspected serious human rights violators from foreign countries who have found safe haven in the United States” and directed law enforcement “to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute these crimes, including genocide, torture, use or recruitment of child soldiers, war crimes, and other crimes committed by human rights violators.” It advised that it is “concerned by the low number of investigations and prosecutions of human rights violators and direct[ed] the Department … to increase the number of prosecutions, and [identify] any organizational or legal impediments to investigating and prosecuting these cases.” In closing, the letter argued that “[v]igorously prosecuting human rights violations is a hallmark of America’s commitment to protecting human rights around the world.”

The DOJ’s actions today are in keeping with this sentiment and reveal the importance of interagency cooperation around war crimes investigations, as I have discussed.

Gambia has been in the headlines quite a bit recently when it comes to international justice issues. Most importantly, and as we’ve covered extensively, Gambia has brought Myanmar before the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention in connection with the alleged genocide against the Rohingya. Gambia is also undergoing a very important transitional justice process that includes an active Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). Findings by the TRRC were crucial to revealing the role that Correa played in mass violence in Gambia during the repressive regime of Jammeh.

Image – Relatives of victims of the regime of former Gambia President Yahya Jammeh demonstrate in Banjul on April 17, 2018 demanding answers on the state of the investigation on the disappearance of their loved ones. Protesters accuse Jammeh, who ruled the West African country for 22 years, of rampant corruption and human rights abuses including forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. / AFP PHOTO / Claire BARGELES