SENEGAL: Families demand justice for Joola ferry deaths

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On 26 September, it will have been six years since 1,865 people died on the Joola ferry, which carried more than three times the number of passengers it was licensed to, when it sank off the coast of Senegal.

No one has been prosecuted in this continent’s largest maritime disaster. On 12 September 2008, French judge Jean-Wilfrid Noel issued nine international arrest warrants against Senegalese officials who were in power at the time of the sinking, holding them responsible, based on maritime agreements between the two countries. Included are Senegal’s former prime minister, minister of transportation, head of armed forces, as well as army and marine officers.

Twenty-two French nationals died in the accident.

On 19 September, ten lawyers for the Senegalese government fought back, announcing plans to counter-prosecute the French government for “abuse of authority and bringing our institutions into disrepute,” said lead lawyer Moussa Felix Sow. At a press conference in Dakar, his colleague El Hadj Diouf accused the French judge of “pure and simple racism, judicial imperialism.”

As the governments trade legal jabs and threats to arrest each other’s former high-ranking officials, families of the victims continue to wait for someone to face charges in court for the accident.

Immediately following the accident, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade said the state assumed responsibility for the sinking, but that the only person who had to answer to a court of law was the captain of the ferry, Issa Diarra— who had died at sea.

High-ranking army officials were transferred to other positions and reprimanded for not reacting quickly enough to calls for help.

The Senegalese government offered US$21,000 in damages for each victim in the drowning. Upon accepting the money, family members agreed not to pursue a legal case against the government.

Not all the money has been disbursed; families must provide adequate paperwork to prove their ties to the victims, and not all required documents have been submitted, according to government officials.

Families of French nationals who died on the ferry refused the compensation, and instead launched an investigation in France on 1 April 2003 against Senegalese authorities for manslaughter and failure to rescue people in danger.

Reached in Paris, Alain Verschave, the vice president of an association of French victims, told IRIN the arrest warrants vindicate not only the deaths of French citizens, but also of all those who drowned, “Yes, we initiated the legal proceedings, but it was on behalf of all the families.”

Idrissa Diallo, a coordinator of an association in Dakar of victims’ family members, says he welcomes the warrants. “The fact the judge Jean-Wilfrid Noel is bringing to trial these Senegalese authorities comforts us a bit. At least, we have the impression our children, our family did not die in vain.”

He says the state paid him about US$60,000 for his three children who drowned. But for him, this amount does not come close to covering his or other victims’ losses, “I worked in the United States [at the time of the accident] and left everything [six years ago] to follow my children’s case. Among us [in the association], we have lost everything, [our] wives and children.”

Diallo says about 65 percent of the victims in the drowning were younger than 26 years old, based on a survey his association conducted with some of the 64 ferry boat survivors and family members of the deceased.

Diallo told IRIN he thinks Senegalese officials have not finished paying off their moral debt for the ferry accident. “It is a terrible shock to lose at once three of your children. For so many nights, I could not sleep. But I was forced to accept it. You cannot dispute death.”