Former Gambian Interior Minister, Ousman Sonko, has been charged by a Swiss court with crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in years of repression by the country’s security forces against opponents of former President Yahya Jammeh.
The indictment filed on Monday, April 17, 2023, in Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court (FCC) in Bellinzona, covers alleged crimes committed during his tenure as Interior Minister between 2000 and 2016.
According to the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG), Sonko is accused of supporting, participating in, and failing to prevent “systematic and generalized attacks” against opponents of the Jammeh regime.
Sonko, who joined the Gambian armed forces in 1988 and was appointed Commander of the State Guard in 2003, was responsible for President Jammeh’s security. In 2005, he was promoted to Inspector General of the Gambian police, before serving as head of the Ministry of the Interior from 2006. The indictment accuses him of supporting and participating in Jammeh’s repressive policies, which targeted political opponents, journalists, and alleged coup plotters.
The repression was characterized by the systematic use of torture, rape, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearances.
Sonko was removed as interior minister in September 2016, and he fled The Gambia seeking asylum in Switzerland. He was arrested in Bern in January 2017, where he had been living as an asylum-seeker in a transit centre. His case was brought following a complaint from the Geneva-based NGO TRIAL International, initially for torture, which was then requalified as crimes against humanity. Sonko has been in jail ever since.
The OAG filed its indictment in the FCC following an extensive investigation involving numerous interviews with the defendant, 40 interviews with complainants, persons providing information and witnesses, as well as six trips to the Gambia made by the team leading the investigation.
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Philip Grant, the executive director of TRIAL International, expressed satisfaction with Sonko’s indictment, stating that he would be the highest political figure ever to be brought to trial in Europe under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
“We are very satisfied that this is going ahead,” said Grant, “We hope this will generate momentum and that the trial will put pressure on Equatorial Guinea to eventually extradite Jammeh,” he added.
The case has received both local and international attention, with human rights groups and individuals calling for justice for the victims of the alleged crimes.
“Today we rejoice that finally, justice has caught up with one of the key perpetrators against Gambians, whose victims continue to live in pain and misery,” Madi Jobarteh, a human rights activist said.
Sheriff Mohammed Kijera of The Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations said that the indictment sets a precedent for the country’s government to “take its responsibility to bring Yaya Jammeh and his henchmen to face justice.”
The hearing will take place before the FCC in Bellinzona, where the OAG will make its final submissions.