Ousman Sonko: Gambian ex-minister goes on trial in Switzerland for murder

Victims and their relatives demonstrate in front of the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland before the beginning of the trial against Gambia's former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko in Bellinzona, Switzerland, 08 January 2024. The federal prosecutor's office has accused Ousman Sonko of numerous crimes against humanity. The list of alleged offenses includes intentional homicide, grievous bodily harm, endangering life, rape and other criminal offenses, committed under former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh's regime.
Image caption,Victims and their relatives have been outside the court in Bellinzona ahead of the start of the trial

By Imogen Foulkes

BBC News, Geneva

A Gambian former interior minister has gone on trial in Switzerland, charged with crimes against humanity.

Ousman Sonko fled there in 2016, shortly before Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, accused of heading a repressive regime, lost power.

Mr Sonko, 54, was arrested after non-governmental organisations presented evidence of his alleged involvement in killings, rape and torture.

But his lawyer said that he was not responsible for what happened.

Philippe Currat is quoted by the AFP news agency as saying that The Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency, which was “never… under [his] authority” was behind the alleged crimes.

Switzerland is trying the case under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute people on their territory, even though the events may have taken place elsewhere.

Mr Sonko is the highest-ranking government official ever to be prosecuted under this principle in Europe.

Human rights groups believe the trial, taking place in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona, could be a warning to repressive governments everywhere that the arm of the law can be very long indeed.

Switzerland’s charge sheet against Mr Sonko is extensive.

It includes the participation in, or ordering of, killings, torture and rape – all targeting political opponents. These could constitute crimes against humanity under Swiss law.

Yahya Jammeh, when president of The Gambia, shows his fingers with ink after casting his vote during the presidential elections 22 September 2006
Image caption,Ex-President Yahya Jammeh, who is now in exile, has been accused of human rights abuses

Swiss investigators travelled to The Gambia and interviewed dozens of alleged victims and witnesses – nine will be in court to testify.

From 1996 until 2016, The Gambia was ruled by President Yahya Jammeh, whose time in office, according to Human Rights Watch, was characterised by “widespread abuses, including forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings”.

Mr Sonko was Mr Jammeh’s right-hand man, his role as interior minister putting him in charge of the security services, including, allegedly, a sinister paramilitary group known as “the Junglers”.

But in 2016, shortly before Mr Jammeh himself lost power, Mr Sonko fled to Switzerland, where he claimed asylum.

Within months he was arrested, after an NGO, Trial International, gave the Swiss authorities details of abuses he was allegedly involved in.

After six trips to The Gambia and 40 interviews with complainants, the Swiss attorney general drew up the charge sheet.

This is only the second time that Switzerland has ever tried someone under universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

The first case, in June 2023, saw former Liberian militia leader Alieu Kosiah sentenced to 20 years for crimes including rape, murder, and cannibalism.

Other countries are also bringing cases against former members of Mr Jammeh’s regime.

In October, Germany handed a life sentence for crimes against humanity to Bai Lowe, a one-time member of “the Junglers”.

Later this year, a court in the US state of Colorado will begin the trial of an alleged former member of the same group.

Although The Gambia has created its own transitional justice process to address abuses committed under Mr Jammeh’s rule, human rights groups say its work has so far been very slow.

Even in the Swiss trial against Mr Sonko, one of the plaintiffs who had been scheduled to testify died before the case came to court.

But for those who do testify, “being invited before a court of law, to tell their stories, is a way for them to heal. And if the federal court does reach a guilty verdict, it will be an enormous relief for them. They will get the answers they have been waiting for for many years,” Trial International’s Benoit Meystre said.

The court case is expected to last a month http://akuitwet.com/ with a verdict coming in March.

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