Swiss court finds Gambian ex-minister guilty of crimes against humanity

Ousman Sonko handed 20-year sentence for atrocities committed under longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh.

Plaintiffs pose at the entrance of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court, on January 8, 2024 in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland at the opening day of the trial of Ousman Sonko, a Gambian former interior minister accused of crimes against humanity committed under the regime of ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh
Plaintiffs, left to right, Demba Dem, Fatou Camara, Madi Ceesay, Ramzia Diab, Binta Jamba and an unidentified person at the entrance of the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, on the opening day of the trial [File: Elodie le Maou/AFP]

Switzerland’s top criminal court has sentenced Ousman Sonko, a former interior minister of The Gambia, to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity.

In its verdict on Wednesday, the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, said Sonko was guilty of intentional homicide, torture and false imprisonment during former President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule over the country.

The charges against Sonko, who served as interior minister from 2006 to 2016, covered alleged crimes during 16 years under Jammeh, who was removed from power in 2017.

Swiss prosecutors had accused Sonko, who was acquitted of rape charges, of supporting, participating in and failing to stop attacks against opponents in The Gambia. The charges included nine counts of crimes against humanity.

Sonko, who was in the courtroom, applied for asylum in Switzerland in November 2016 and was arrested two months later.

The trial started in January. The 55-year-old may appeal the verdict.

Rights groups welcomed the ruling, obtained under “universal jurisdiction”, which allows countries to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide regardless of where they were committed.

Philip Grant, executive director of TRIAL International, said on X that it sent a “resounding message against impunity”. The advocacy group had filed the complaint that led to Sonko’s arrest.

Reed Brody, an American human rights lawyer who attended the trial, said: “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.”

Under the universal jurisdiction principle, Switzerland recognises the right to try alleged offenders of the most serious crimes, whether they are citizens or foreigners, as long as they are on Swiss soil. Sonko will be the second individual tried under that principle since Switzerland enforced it in 2011.

The only other person to have been tried for crimes against humanity in the country is Alieu Kosiah, a Liberian strongman who was handed a 20-year term in June 2021 for mass killings and other crimes perpetrated in the Liberian civil wars.

Widespread abuse

Jammeh – who now lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea – seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1994. His rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, sexual abuse and extrajudicial killings.

Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron grip from 1994 to 2016 [File: Marco Longari/AFP]

The violations that took place under him were aided by allies in official government positions. A death squad, The Junglers, for instance, was systematically deployed to target opponents, torturing or eliminating people as the president wished.

Sonko, who joined the Gambian military in 1988, was appointed commander of the State Guard in 2003, a position in which he was responsible for Jammeh’s security, Swiss prosecutors said. He was also made inspector general of the Gambian police in 2005.

He was removed as interior minister in September 2016, a few months before Jammeh left the country. The former president had refused to accept the victory of Adama Barrow in the 2016 elections but was forced to step down by troops from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc.

The human rights monitor Amnesty Switzerland called the verdict “milestone in the fight against impunity and a historic success for universal jurisdiction in Switzerland and Europe”, posting on X that “even former ministers can be prosecuted”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies