May 15, 2024

Swiss court jails Gambian ex-minister for crimes against humanity

Swiss court jails Gambian ex-minister for crimes against humanity

Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court on Wednesday sentenced Gambian former interior minister Ousman Sonko to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity.

Sonko, 55, was convicted over a string of offences committed between 2000 and 2016 under the regime of former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.

Reading the verdict, the clerk of the court said Sonko had been given a “custodial sentence of 20 years”.

Sonko can appeal the verdict.

State prosecutors had sought life imprisonment for Sonko at the trial in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, which began in January.

Sonko has been in Swiss custody since his arrest in January 2017 after applying for asylum following his sacking from the West African nation’s government.

He was tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide regardless of where they were committed.

“The conviction of Ousman Sonko, one of the pillars of Yahya Jammeh’s brutal regime, is a major step on the long road to justice for Jammeh’s victims,” said lawyer Reed Brody, a member of the International Commission of Jurists.

“This verdict confirms that justice knows no borders and that ‘universal jurisdiction’ has become a powerful tool to bring to book tyrants and torturers who thought they had escaped justice,” he said in a statement.

Brody works with Jammeh’s victims and followed the court case in Bellinzona.

Sonko’s lawyers had argued that he should not have been tried on any counts predating 2011 when universal jurisdiction came into force in Switzerland.

During the trial, the prosecution and the civil parties involved argued why they considered Sonko to be responsible for killings, torture, rape and other sexual crimes.

Trial International filed the complaint leading to Sonko’s arrest.

The NGO “observed great relief on the part of the complaining parties to have been present, to be able to confront Ousman Sonko and to see how he reacted to what they said”, Trial’s legal advisor Benoit Meystre told AFP.

“Some also told us that the role they played in the trial contributes to their healing,” he added.

Torture, rape allegations 

The complainants’ lawyers had said they believed there was no doubt that Sonko was part of Jammeh’s inner circle throughout his repressive regime.

Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron grip from 1994 to 2016.

Sonko was accused by Swiss prosecutors of “having supported, participated in and failed to prevent systematic and generalised attacks as part of the repression carried out by the Gambian security forces against all opponents of the regime”.

The charges included nine counts of crimes against humanity.

Sonko was accused of having “deliberately killed, tortured, raped and unlawfully deprived individuals of their liberty in a serious manner”.

He was accused of committing the crimes first within the army, then as inspector general of the police, and finally as the interior minister from 2006 to 2016.

His lawyers argued that he should not be tried for crimes against humanity because the alleged offences were isolated acts, and acts for which they said Sonko bore no responsibility.

Jammeh and his ‘henchmen’ 

“The long arm of the law is catching up with Yahya Jammeh’s accomplices all around the world, and hopefully will soon catch up with Jammeh himself,” Brody said.

“Jammeh’s henchmen have been convicted in Germany and now in Switzerland and another trial is approaching in the United States,” he added.

“Most importantly, the Gambian government, after many years, is finally moving towards the prosecution of Jammeh himself,” Brody said.

In 2022, the Gambian government endorsed the recommendations of a commission that looked into the atrocities perpetrated during the Jammeh era.

The authorities agreed to prosecute 70 people, starting with Jammeh, who went into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017.

In April, the Gambian parliament passed bills to establish the Office of the Special Prosecutor to prosecute cases identified by the commission and provide for a special court.