Both the aggrieved and the accused had their day in court as the trial of former Gambian government minister Ousman Sonko neared its conclusion in the Federal Court of Bellinzona, Switzerland.
Several complainants and victims testified in court and faced their erstwhile tormentor as he answered questions and defended himself in the case whose hearings were finalised on January 23, 2024, and the presenting of evidence closed. The closing arguments are scheduled to take place during the week of March 4-8, 2024.
The tales of torture recounted before the four judges in the Swiss court by the victims of the aftermath of the April 14, 2016, protest were particularly harrowing.
One of the victims who testified was Madi Ceesay, the current legislator for Serrekunda West in The Gambia and also a plaintiff in the case against Sonko. He was one of the journalists who suffered at the hands of the Yahya Jammeh regime because of their work. Ceesay was arrested in March 2006 after the newspaper he headed, The Independent, published several articles, discussing the coup attempt that had happened earlier that month.
The journalist and former senior official of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) described how he was arrested as he arrived at his workplace and was driven to the headquarters of the Police Intervention Unit (PIU), where some of his colleagues were held, and later to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) in Banjul.
He and a colleague were locked up in a tiny and dirty police cell and he was interrogated about the articles he had written on the coup attempt. Masked men beat him up brutally after taking him from his cell at night, all the while asking him about his work. Ceesay was then taken before a panel that included Sonko, who was at the time the Inspector General of Police (IGP). He was detained for several weeks and for about two years after being released, he could not work because of the police presence at the newspaper offices.
Modou Ngum, a prosecution witness who was among the members of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) arrested, detained, and tortured after the April 14, 2016 protest that was meant to push for electoral reforms before the presidential elections slated for later that year, described how he and four others – Solo Sandeng, Nogoi Njie, Ebrima Jabang, and Kafu Bayo – were separated from the rest at the PIU, where they were first taken, and transferred to the offices of the infamous NIA, with the approval of a group including Sonko.
Dinner for the vultures
“I heard the Interior minister [Sonko] say anyone who plays with the president would be dinner for the vultures,” the witness testified.
Ngum was accused of mobilising residents of Kombo South to participate in the UDP-organised protest. Several people were detained and tortured. Sandeng, the party’s youth secretary and leader of the protest march, died as a result of the torture he was subjected to.
“They tied me to a table and the Junglers came and beat me up until I could not hear myself crying,” he said.
“They untied me and beat me on my arm. The mark is still here. They then took me out to the bahama grass (a drought-resistant grass also known as Bermuda grass). I screamed as they electrocuted my genitals, and they were just laughing. They put my legs in cold water and then took me to the cell, after which I was presented before the investigation panel.”
Fatoumata Jawara, another protester and a plaintiff in the case, wailed in court as she recalled her torture. “I was dumped in a place where I lay in a coma for days. I later found myself in a hospital bed. All my clothes were torn. They announced my death and my family arranged a funeral service for me.”
According to Fatou Camara, another plaintiff who also broke down as she testified, the prison she was taken at Janjanbureh (a town 300 km east of Banjul, the capital city), was even worse. “They kept us in the dark,” she told the court.
Both women described how they were tortured and shuttled between the NIA offices and several prisons for interrogation. They gave almost identical descriptions of the conditions in which they were detained – in tiny, unhygienic cells and denied medical treatment and visits by family and legal representatives.
Nogoi Njie, a plaintiff who had been listed to testify died before the trial started. However, she narrated her ordeal before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
Was Sonko present?
When he was given a chance to reply to his accusers, Sonko denied any knowledge of the torture of the victims and said he had not given any orders for it. He disputed the contention of several witnesses that he had been seen at the PIU during their arrest and torture.
“On 14 April I was not at the PIU. Several people have said today that they did not see me there, including Fatou Camara and Fatoumata Jawara,” the accused stated.
He denied being part of any interrogation panel at the NIA. According to Ngum, Sonko and Yankuba Badjie, the Director General of the NIA, had given instructions that they be given VIP treatment, which meant severe beatings.
As part of his defence, Sonko referred to the “the NIA 9 trial” during which nine former leaders of the NIA were sentenced to death in July 2022 in The Gambia for their human rights violations. He said although Ngum testified at the trial in 2018, he did not mention seeing him (Sonko) at the PIU.
The judges stopped the defence from playing a video showing the detained protesters at the NIA, ostensibly to prove that Sonko was not there that day. The victims protested that the video shows their victimisation.
“We just wanted to prove that Sonko was not at that panel. If you watch the video, you will see that Sonko is not there,” the defence lawyer, Philippe Currat, later told us during a court break.
Sonko said he was “shocked” when he watched the interrogation video, which is in the court’s file. “I could not watch it a second time because we are all Gambians and we are all brothers and sisters. I was really shocked. It was wrong and it was unacceptable.”
The former minister said he did not consider the protesters as political prisoners. “They violated the laws of The Gambia and were arrested and sentenced accordingly,” he said.
“Solo Sandeng deliberately organised a demonstration without acquiring a valid permit from the Inspector General of the Police (IGP). The demonstration, as I understand it from Modou Ngum, was supposed to include other opposition parties, but they refused to participate because there was no permit. Even some of the UDP members who were with him in the bureau refused to participate and went home because they all knew that it was unlawful to plan a demonstration without a permit.”
Solo Sandeng’s daughter, Fatoumatta Sandeng, who is one of the plaintiffs in the Swiss case, did not agree with the sentiments that appeared to blame her father for his own death.
“We all know that Solo went out to protest because it was the only option to be heard. He was ready to face the consequences of being taken to the courts but not to be killed,” she said outside the courtroom.
Law and order
Answering a prosecutor who cited a video showing the former minister threatening prospective protesters, Sonko insisted that he had been misquoted. “My statement did not cause what happened on April 14, 2016; it was in reaction to what had happened… the emphasis here was law and order. It was not meant to deny people a permit to hold protests…”
At one point, Sonko found himself trying to extricate himself from the interpretation of several documents found in his suitcase when he was arrested in Switzerland in January 2017. The notes appeared to implicate him in crimes committed during the suppression of the April 14, 2016 protest.
The former minister had all along disowned the notes, but when the prosecution presented them in court, Sonko accepted that they were his, but insisted that he had been misinterpreted.
“What I said was there was no document in a suitcase. The documents I saw were not in a suitcase. That is what I said,” he told the court, trying to downplay the meaning of the contents of the note. “This I prepared after I was in office and it was to be used for my asylum [request to Switzerland]. But the content is not what transpired,” he said.
These are some of the excerpts from Sonko’s notes:
“The president gave me a directive to harass and even kill the leader of the opposition and I refused to do so because I want to see a free and fair election”; “During the April 16, 2016 incident he [Yahya Jammeh, president of The Gambia from July 1994 to January 2017] gave me a directive for the police to shoot and kill the opposition”; “The directive [asked] for those arrested by police to be handed over to the NIA, which I did.” “I fled for my safety.”
“You said to the presiding judge only part one [of the note] was correct. Why are we hearing this for the first time? Why never mention this at all?” the prosecutor asked.
“I was exercising my right to remain silent. I knew at one point I will say what I want to say before the courts. That is why I remained silent,” Sonko answered.
“Why should there be in those notes passages that you formulated [some that were] intentionally wrong?” the prosecutor rephrased.
“I’m not going to answer that.”
“I ask myself how is it possible that parts of the content that you say is wrong actually correspond to our investigations, to investigations by the federal police, statements of witnesses, the TRRC? To me you have knowledge of what happened,” the prosecutor insisted.
The defence was not keen to comment on the notes even outside of the court. “Let’s just take it that if that order was given, it was never executed by Sonko. We all know that the police did not shoot and kill,” said Currat.
The court later admitted the notes into evidence.
Tales of horrific torture
Commenting on the court proceedings, Fatoumatta Sandeng said: “The first time I sat in the courtroom and we started talking about this [the April 14 event] and Sonko sat there, it was really surreal. I mean, you had to process a lot.
Even now, there’s a lot to process but it’s amazing that this is going on and the victims are facing Sonko. You know, confronting him with questions and things that he has done and you see the power that you possess and how powerless a perpetrator is, that’s history in the making.”
Earlier, the court heard how a prison guard was instructed to allow some men to see a patient, whom they later suffocated in his hospital bed in October 2011.
Lamin Sanneh, an orderly of the then Director General of Mile 2 Prison, David Colley (now deceased), said he was deployed to the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital to guard Baba Jobe, a former business partner and close ally of President Yahya Jammeh, with whom he had fallen out.
In March 2004, Jobe, at one time the majority leader in parliament for the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party, was imprisoned for nine years for financial crimes. At the time he was killed, he had completed his prison sentence but was still in custody.
According to the testimony of his wife, Tida Jaiteh, before the truth commission, when she asked Colley about her husband’s release after he completed his sentence, he referred her to the then interior minister, Ousman Sonko, whom she said never agreed to meet her to discuss the matter on the three occasions she visited his office.
“It was on a weekend when I was called by Director General David Colley and was informed that I had been posted at the Edward Francis Small Hospital. On the evening of October 7, 2011, David Colley told me to go and guard Baba Jobe. He told me strange or unknown men would come and that I should not challenge them, otherwise I would lose my life,” Sanneh, a witness called by the plaintiffs, told the court.
According to him, he did not know that the Junglers would come to kill Jobe. The president of the court told the witness that when Omar “Oya” Jallow, one of the Junglers who confessed to participating in the operation, was interviewed by the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland, he had said: “The security guard that we met there knew. He said the patient was sleeping and the doctor had just left. When we went in, we suffocated him and left.”
But the witness insisted that he was not aware of the plan in advance.
“I feel very bad because had I known about it before I went there, it would have been better for me to resign…. They just sacrificed me. I was being sacrificed.”
Asked if Colley said he had received instructions from Sonko, the witness replied: “He did not tell me that but I knew that the minister was aware of whatever Colley was doing. He fed the minister information on the happenings in and out of the prisons on a daily basis.”
In 2016, Sanneh was himself imprisoned in Mile 2 for nine months at the same time as some of the plaintiffs.
Special relations with the president
The court informed Sonko that Colley, in his cautionary statement, said he had informed the defendant that Jobe had fallen during an exercise with other prisoners and had been taken to the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital. A few days later Sonko called to inform him about a visit to Jobe by army member, Nuha Badjie. According to Colley, when he informed Sonko that other prison officers were guarding Jobe, Sonko asked him to send them away and replace them with a senior officer.
The defendant read out the statements of four prison officers – Lamin Sowe, Bakary Kujabi, Yahya P. Jarju, and Momodou Jarju – denying Colley’s allegation that they were part of a panel to choose a guard to be posted at the hospital. The statements were made to the police between March 14 and 15, 2018.
“Baba Jobe was sick and taken to Edward Francis Small Hospital. He was admitted at the main ward, which is a shell ward. Based on an executive directive from the State House, he was moved to the private block,” he said in response to a question from his counsel.
Told that several witnesses, including media reports, have over the years blamed Jobe’s death on Jammeh, Sonko replied: “Baba Jobe was majority leader in parliament representing Yahya Jammeh’s ruling party APRC. Thus, he was not a political opponent. He was charged with economic crimes. So I don’t consider him a political opponent.”
Sonko told the court: “David Colley, as the Director General of the prisons, had special relations with the president. As such, he was able to do some things without passing through the ministry. They came from the same village and had a special relationship. So the president was able to talk to Colley directly without passing through the minister.”
Jobe’s body was handed to his family without a post-mortem being conducted. His widow told the TRRC that the family suspected that her husband had been murdered. They did not want the post-mortem because it would have been conducted by the very people who had killed him. “The one that kills you pays you condolences and announces your death,” she said.
Inmates were taken away and tortured
Sanneh and another prison officer, Abdou Jammeh, testified on the prison conditions in The Gambia.
“Mile 2, is not a clean place. Some places are big halls. The cells of those in remand or on trial are tight. It is not clean because when you see their toilet, you won’t take a human being there,” Jammeh said.
Sanneh acknowledged that inmates were tortured. “Some inmates are taken away to be tortured. They said they were taken to NIA offices. Most of the time, the Junglers came for the prisoners. When they were brought back, you would just know that this guy has gone through something.”