Swiss Court Sentences Former Gambian Interior Minister to 20 Years

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By Mustapha Jallow/Amadou Manjang

Switzerland’s top Court on Wednesday, 15 May 2024, convicted OusmanSonko, a former interior minister of Gambia under the regime of former Gambian President, YahyaJammeh, for crimes against humanity, according to a statement from ‘TRIAL International’, an international NGO that fights against human rights abuses and crimes against humanity across the world.

The Federal Criminal Court (FCC) of Switzerland found Mr. Sonko guilty of multiple crimes committed between 2000 and 2016, under the watchful rule of exiled dictator Jammeh, and jailed him to 20 years imprisonment.

This international trial which began in January was seen by human rights advocacy groups as an opportunity to reach conviction under “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for serious crimes committed in other countries to be prosecuted abroad.

‘‘The verdict was read out in the Swiss Criminal Court on 15 May 2024, and Mr. Sonko, who was present in the courtroom, offered little reaction when a translation of the verdict was read out to him in English during the proceeding,’’ the legal adviser for TRIAL International said.

Mr. Sonko is the highest-ranking official of the former regime ever convicted in Europe for international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, becoming the second trial for crimes against humanity in Swiss judicial history, the statement said.

In its delivered verdict, the FCC found Ousman Sonko guilty of the killing of a perceived political opponent in 2000; torture; illegal detention in connection to a coup plot in March 2006; the killing of a politician in 2011, and deprivation of liberty as well as acts of torture including killing of peaceful demonstrators in 2016.

According to the verdict, the FCC further ordered Mr. Sonko to compensate the plaintiffs for the prejudices suffered.

Ramzia Diab Ghanim, one of the ten plaintiffs in this case, made the following comments on Wednesday’s verdict: “This decision gives us the closure we had been waiting for long, and it shows that there is no hiding place for anyone who perpetrated international crimes in The Gambia; not even the highest-level individuals. However, I am disappointed that the Court failed to recognize that sexual violence was and is also an attack against us civilians.”

The Gambia Press Union (GPU) said it welcomes the sentencing of former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko for crimes against humanity.

According to GPU Secretary General, Modou S. Joof; ‘During Sonko’s tenure as minister, some of the worst crimes were committed against journalists, including the torture of former journalist MadiCeesay, and Musa Saidykhan – both working for The Independent Newspaper back in 2006.’  

Joof said that Wednesday’s verdict strongly reflects their wishes and aspirations for justice for human rights violations committed against Gambian journalists among others victims of YahyaJammeh regime.

Demba Ali Jawo, who was President of the GPU when Ceesay and Saidykhan were arrested and tortured, said: ‘Indeed, most Gambians, particularly victims of the YahyaJammeh regime, have welcomed the verdict of the Swiss court, sentencing former Interior Minister OusmanSonko to 20 years imprisonment.”

He said he hope this would serve as a lesson to both serving and future public officials that justice would be served to those who violate the rights of the people, no matter how long it may take.

‘However, some people wish that he should be repatriated to The Gambia to serve his sentence in the same harsh prison conditions that their victims had endured here,’ he added.

Jawo is currently the Chairman of the National Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations.

Sonko’s conviction and sentencing comes almost six months after Bai Lowe, a former Jungler, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the murder of journalist DeydaHydara.

Bai Lowe was found guilty by the Higher Regional Court of Celle, a northern town in Germany.

He was found guilty on crimes against humanity on November 30, 2023, and sentenced him to life imprisonment for the assassination of DeydaHydara in 2004, the murder of a former soldier in 2006, and the attempted assassination of a lawyer.

“These universal jurisdiction cases that have now been concluded in Germany and Switzerland and expected to begin in the USA with the trial of a former death squad member, Micheal Sang Correa, have brought a lot of hope for justice for victims of crimes against humanity,” GPU President, Muhammed S. Bah, said.

He urged the Gambia government to expedite the process of seeking justice for journalists and all other victims of gross human rights violations suffered during Jammeh dictatorship.

Despite this historic conviction, the Court abandoned all sexual offense charges allegedly perpetrated between 2000 and 2006. Without judging that they did not take place, the Court considered that from 2000 onwards, they were isolated from the context of an attack directed against the civilian population and thus could not constitute crimes against humanity.

 The Court also found that electrical shocks imposed on the genitals should not be considered as sexual violence but as torture. ‘TRIAL’ International regrets this decision but said it will continue to support the plaintiffs, should they decide to appeal these aspects.

‘‘Indeed, the parties may contest the judgment by appealing with the Court of Appeals of the FCC,’’ the statement acknowledges.

Former interior minister Sonko was arrested in Switzerland in January 2017, a day after ‘TRIAL’ International filed a criminal suit against him. Following an investigation that lasted over six years, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland indicted Mr. Sonko in April 2023, and his trial took place in January and March 2024, before the FCC in Bellinzona.

The conviction was made possible thanks to Swiss law which recognizes universal jurisdiction for certain serious crimes under international law, and allows for the prosecution of such crimes in Switzerland, regardless of where they were committed and of the nationality of either suspects or victims.

‘TRIAL’ International supported nine plaintiffs who traveled to Switzerland in January 2024 to be heard by the Swiss court. 

As the trial was held in German, the international organization advocated strongly but largely in vain, for the proceedings to be translated and made accessible to victims and the Gambian population. ‘TRIAL’ International also ensured the regular publication of hearings throughout the proceedings.

“Today’s conviction sets a historic precedent in the fight against impunity worldwide,” Philip Grant, Director of ‘TRIAL’ International said, and continued that the verdict not only brings justice to the victims of these heinous crimes but also sends a strong signal to high-level perpetrators across the globe, including ministers, that justice can catch up with them.

The conviction is another step on the long road to justice for all victims of the atrocities committed during Jammeh’s 1994-2016 reign of terror, and it is the second trial based on the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed in The Gambia.

The first was the case of Bai Lowe, a former member of a paramilitary unit known as the “Junglers”, created by the former president. He was sentenced by a German court to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity in November 2023. Another alleged member of the same death squad, Michael Correa, is scheduled to go on trial in the USA in September 2024. He is charged with torture and conspiracy to commit torture.

Recognizing OusmanSonko’s role in the abuses committed during Jammeh’s dictatorship not only contributes to reducing impunity for the violations committed in The Gambia during Mr. Jammeh’s regime but may also spur domestic prosecutions, propelling the transitional justice process initiated in 2017.

In December 2021, the final report of The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and ReparationCommission concluded that Jammeh and 69 of his associates including OusmanSonko, had committed international crimes or grave human rights violations and called for their prosecution. The Gambia government published an implementation plan in May 2023. On 22-23 April 2024, the Gambia’s National Assembly passed a Special Prosecutor’s Office Bill and a Special Accountability Mechanism Bill. The two Bills will have to be signed by President Barrow before entering into force.