The U.S. government is attempting to seize the Montgomery County estate of Yahya Jammeh, the exiled former president of The Gambia who has been accused of murders, rapes, tortures and the theft of more than $300 million in public funds during his 22-year regime.
A lawsuit filed July 15 in the U.S. District Court of Maryland seeks the forfeiture of the six-bedroom, nine-bathroom home at 9908 Bentcross Drive, Potomac.
The mansion in the exclusive Falconhurst neighborhood has a heated pool, cabana/guest house and seven-car garage, according to a recent Long and Foster real estate listing. Records differ, but the home occupies either 8,800 square feet or 11,000 square feet.
Public records reveal the home was sold for $3.5 million in 2010 to the Jammeh family trust by basketball star Calbert Cheaney, who previously played for the Washington Bullets (now Washington Wizards.)
The Jammeh children attended school in the Washington area, according to the complaint, and their parents occasionally visited. In 2014, Gambia’s first couple attended a state dinner at the White House; Yahya and Zineb Jammeh posed for photos with President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
The Gambia is among the poorest nations in the world, ranking 174th out of 189 countries, according to the World Food Program. Nearly half of its population lives in poverty.
“Yahya Jammeh corruptly obtained millions of dollars through the embezzlement of public funds and the solicitation of bribes” from businesses seeking to obtain monopoly rights over petroleum, telecommunications and other sectors of the Gambian economy, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a news release.
In addition, the release claims that Jammeh, 55, “conspired with his family members and close associates to utilize a host of shell companies and overseas trusts to launder his corrupt proceeds throughout the world, including through the purchase of a multimillion-dollar mansion in Potomac, Maryland.”
Then head of the military police, Jammeh lead a bloodless coup that took control of The Gambia in 1994. He presided over the small African nation until he was forcibly ousted in 2017.
The lawsuit says that during the latter years of Jammeh’s presidency, his annual salary was no more than $65,000 in U.S. dollars. The complaint cites a nine-volume report released last year by Gambia’s Ministry of Justice that concludes Jammeh lacked the income to support his lavish lifestyle and “wasted, misappropriated, diverted or simply stole” the equivalent of more than $300 million from public accounts.
According to public records, the estate next door to the Bentcross Drive mansion is owned by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the longtime president of Equatorial Guinea and the nation where Jammeh is reported to be living in exile. He could not be reached immediately for comment, and a spokesman for the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea in Washington wrote Wednesday in an email that the Embassy “does not have any information to share.”*
On Dec. 21, 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Jammeh stemming from human rights abuses carried out by a roughly 40-member unofficial squad culled from his personal guard. According to that press release:
“Jammeh created a terror and assassination squad called the Junglers that answered directly to him. During Jammeh’s tenure, he ordered the Junglers to kill a local religious leader, journalists, members of the political opposition, and former members of the government, among others. Throughout his presidency, Jammeh routinely ordered the abuse and murder of those he suspected of undermining his authority.”
In 2019, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch accused Jammeh of having raped at least three women while he was in office.
The Jammehs “thought that they could hide funds stolen from the Gambian people by buying a mansion in Potomac, Maryland,” Robert K. Hur, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland said in the Justice Department’s news release. “The United States will not allow criminals to profit from their crimes and will seek justice for crime victims both here and abroad.”
Representatives for Gambia’s Embassy in Washington and the Equatorial Guinea human rights organization, EG Justice, did not respond to requests for comment.
Neither the Jammehs nor the trust appears to have retained an attorney to represent them; as of Aug. 4, none were listed in the case docket. Nearly two months remain to contest the attempted seizure. If no objection has been made by Sept. 21, federal prosecutors can ask U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow to enter a default judgment granting the forfeiture.
If the seizure is approved, the estate at 9908 Bentcross becomes the property of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which would determine how it would be used. Often, seized assets are sold, with proceeds given to the victims.
For instance, the Justice Department announced last May that it had returned nearly $312 million to the Nigerian government after liquidating assets stolen by former dictator Sani Abacha and his confederates. The money will be used to build an expressway, bridge and roads.
* This story has been updated.