Swiss court jails Gambia ex-minister for 20 years – a lesson for African politicians

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 May 2024:

A Swiss court has sentenced a former Gambian minister to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity, according to BBC report published yesterday 15th May.

Ousman Sonko fled to Switzerland in 2016, shortly before Gambian President Yahya Jammeh was forced out of power after refusing to admit he had lost elections. His government was accused of numerous rights abuses.

The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), whose report was published in December  includes him as one of the individuals  who should be prosecuted. It portrays him as a close member of Jammeh’s regime, which committed widespread abuses against civilians, including torture, extrajudicial killings, mock executions and sexual violence. Many of these crimes took place in prisons and secret detention centres falling under Sonko’s authority.

After non-governmental organisations presented evidence of atrocities committed against Mr Jammeh’s political opponents, Sonko was arrested.

Sonko’s lawyers have said he was not responsible for what happened. Despite this defence, the 55-year-old former interior minister was convicted of intentional homicide, torture and false imprisonment on Wednesday. He was acquitted of rape.

He can appeal against the ruling, given by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court in the city of Bellinzona.

Switzerland tried the case under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute people for crimes that took place elsewhere.

Sonko is the highest-ranking government official ever to be prosecuted under this principle in Europe.

Philip Grant, head of the organisation that filed the complaint leading to Sonko’s arrest, said the case sends a “resounding message against impunity”.

“Minister-level perpetrators are now within reach of justice,” the Trial International director added.

Swiss investigators travelled to The Gambia and interviewed dozens of alleged victims and witnesses for the trial, which began in January this year.

Under Mr Jammeh, who was in power from 1996 until 2016, The Gambia was characterised by “widespread abuses, including forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings”, according to Human Rights Watch

Sonko was seen as Mr Jammeh’s right-hand man, his role as interior minister putting him in charge of the security services, including, allegedly, a sinister paramilitary group known as “the Junglers”.

But in 2016, shortly before Mr Jammeh lost power, Sonko fled to Switzerland, where he claimed asylum. In January 2017, he was arrested by authorities there.

Along with Switzerland, other countries are bringing cases against former members of Mr Jammeh’s regime.

In October, Germany handed a life sentence for crimes against humanity to Bai Lowe, a one-time member of “the Junglers”.

And in September this year, a court in the US state of Colorado will try an alleged former member of the same group.

Although The Gambia has created its own transitional justice process to address abuses committed under Mr Jammeh’s rule, human rights groups say its work has so far been very slow.


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