Former Gambian Minister of Interior Ousman Sonko Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Crimes Against Humanity in Historic Swiss Trial Features
NAC, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Former Gambian Minister of Interior Ousman Sonko Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Crimes Against Humanity in Historic Swiss Trial

Former Gambian Minister of Interior Ousman Sonko has been convicted of crimes against humanity by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court (FCC). The court found him guilty of numerous crimes committed between 2000 and 2016 under the regime of ex-President Yahya Jammeh, sentencing Sonko to 20 years in prison. This conviction marks the highest-ranking official ever sentenced in Europe for international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and signifies only the second trial for crimes against humanity in Swiss judicial history.

In its verdict handed down on May 15, the FCC determined that Sonko was guilty of several heinous acts: the killing of a political opponent in 2000; torture and illegal detention linked to a coup plot in March 2006; the murder of a politician in 2011; and deprivations of liberty, along with acts of torture including a fatal incident against peaceful demonstrators in 2016. Sonko was also ordered to compensate the plaintiffs for the damages they suffered.

Ramzia Diab Ghanim, one of the ten plaintiffs in the case, expressed her thoughts on the verdict:

This decision gives us the closure we have long awaited and demonstrates that no perpetrator of international crimes in The Gambia can escape justice, regardless of their rank. However, I am disappointed that the Court did not recognize that sexual violence is also an attack against civilians.

Despite this landmark conviction, the court dismissed all sexual offense charges related to incidents from 2000 onwards and 2006. While not denying the occurrences, the court ruled that these acts were isolated from the context of a systematic attack against the civilian population and therefore did not qualify as crimes against humanity. Additionally, the court classified electric shocks inflicted on genitals not as sexual violence but as torture. NGO TRIAL International expressed regret over this decision and intends to continue supporting the plaintiffs should they choose to appeal these aspects of the verdict.

Both parties retain the right to appeal the judgment with the FCC’s Lower Appeals Chamber.

Ousman Sonko was apprehended in Switzerland in January 2017. Following an exhaustive six-year investigation, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) indicted Sonko in April 2023. His trial, held in January and March 2024, took place before the FCC in Bellinzona.

Universal Jurisdiction and Swiss Law

Sonko’s conviction was made possible by Swiss law’s acknowledgment of universal jurisdiction for certain severe international crimes, permitting the prosecution of these crimes regardless of where they were committed or the nationalities of the suspects and victims.

TRIAL International assisted nine plaintiffs who traveled to Switzerland in January 2024 to provide testimony before the court. Despite substantial efforts from the organization, the trial proceedings, conducted in German, were largely inaccessible to the victims and the Gambian public due to insufficient translation. Nonetheless, TRIAL International ensured the regular publication of hearing summaries throughout the proceedings.

“This conviction sets a historic precedent in the fight against impunity worldwide,” stated Philip Grant, Director of TRIAL International. “This verdict not only delivers justice to the victims of these horrific crimes but also sends a formidable message to high-ranking perpetrators globally, including ministers: justice can catch up with you,” he added.

Sonko’s trial was the second based on the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed in The Gambia. The first involved Bai L., a former member of a paramilitary unit known as the “Junglers,” who was sentenced to life imprisonment by a German court for crimes against humanity in November 2023. Another alleged member of the same death squad, Michael Correa, is scheduled for trial in the USA in September 2024 on charges of torture and conspiracy to commit torture.

Commenting on the verdict, The Gambian Ministry of Justice said in a press release that:

The Gambia, this verdict comes at a pivotal time in our history as the country undergoes a transition from an autocratic to a democratic governance system. The Gambia’s transitional justice programme was designed and continues to benefit from decades of lessons learnt, good practices and global discourse on the pursuit of justice and accountability for atrocity crimes since the Nuremberg Trials. Therefore, transitional justice in The Gambia reaffirms The Government’s uncompromisable duty not only to ensure justice and accountability, but also promote truth, provide reparations to victims, and guarantee non-recurrence large-scale serious human rights violations, through memorialization, institutional, constitutional and legislative

According to the ministry, these legal reforms, including the Special Accountability Mechanism Bill:

outline[] the institutional framework envisaged by the Government of The Gambia for the implementation of the justice and accountability component of the TRRC [Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission] recommendations accepted in the White Paper. The Special Accountability Mechanism Bill aims to address the crimes specified in the Government White Paper. It does so by laying down the core principles for investigating and prosecuting cases involving serious human rights violations that
occurred in The Gambia between July 1994 to January 2017.

The TRRC Recommendations 

The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) has made 19 recommendations relating to sexual violence. Five primary recommendations (with eight sub-recommendations) advocate for the prosecution of the following individuals: Yahya Jammeh, Ousman Sonko, General Solo Bojang, Captain Saihou Jallow, Officer Badjie, Foday Barry, Baba Saho, Kawsu Camara (Bombardier), Alagie Martin, Solo Bojang, and Sheikh Omar Jeng (TRRC, 2021b, p. 53).

The commission suggests that Yankuba Colley, Lang Tombong Tamba, and Momodou Hydara should not face prosecution for their involvement in sexual violations, as they lacked direct control over the crimes they have been accused of. Additionally, the TRRC recommends that former Director General of Prisons, David Colley—accused of sexual harassment and exploitation of female prison officers in 2007—be banned from holding any government-appointed position for a minimum of five years (pp. 30-32, 53). No recommendations were made for Daba Marena, Sainey Manneh, and Manlafi Corr as they are deceased.

The TRRC has urged the National Human Rights Commission to oversee the implementation of its recommendations and to provide regular reports to the National Assembly on their status (TRRC, 2021a, p. 154).

The TRRC’s final report emphasizes the need for the Gambian government to take full responsibility for implementing these recommendations. This includes funding for the Child Protection Unit, capacity building for staff, hiring experts such as psychologists and social workers, and providing necessary resources like vehicles and fuel to support sensitization tours to prevent future sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) crimes. It also suggests supporting strategic law enforcement units for timely response and investigation of reported cases, as well as aiding key civil society organizations that address sexual violence (TRRC, 2021b, pp. 53-54).

Additionally, the TRRC proposes the establishment of a Victim Support Fund and mandates that all institutions, including private sectors and civil society, implement sexual abuse and harassment policies in alignment with the Women’s Act and the National Women’s Policy to protect women’s rights and ensure non-recurrence.

The commission recommends collaboration with relevant government institutions, such as the Department of Social Welfare, to provide sufficient resources and manage facilities like one-stop centers to assist SGBV victims. It also advises reform in the security sector, thorough education for law enforcement officials on handling SGBV cases and provision of victim-friendly spaces in police stations. Furthermore, the commission says police stations should enhance capacity through training, funding, standard operating procedures, policy development, and special diaries to ensure confidentiality (p. 54).

The TRRC also encourages the University of The Gambia and its associated bodies to research SGBV, establish a social work program to train licensed clinical social workers, and focus on education and training to support communities affected by such violations.

Collaboration between civil society organizations and the government is recommended to educate relevant government institutions and the broader Gambian populace about their rights and responsibilities. Community outreach, civic education, and women’s empowerment initiatives were suggested to educate communities on SGBV.

Under Article 20 of the TRRC Act, the commission underscores that reparations for SGBV victims/survivors should involve “individual and collective measures, including restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition” (TRRC, 2021a, p. 141). However, specific reparations for SGBV victims have not been allocated in the recommendations.

Recognizing Ousman Sonko’s role in the abuses during Jammeh’s dictatorship contributes to reducing impunity for violations committed during Jammeh’s regime and may stimulate domestic prosecutions, advancing the transitional justice process initiated in 2017. The Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s final report in December 2021 concluded that Jammeh and 69 associates, including Sonko, perpetrated international crimes or grave human rights violations and called for their prosecution. In response, the Gambian government released an implementation plan in May 2023. On 22-23 April 2024, the Gambian National Assembly passed a Special Prosecutor’s Office Bill and a Special Accountability Mechanism Bill, awaiting the President’s signature to become law.

Beth van Schaack from the US State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice said:

This is an important step toward holding accountable those responsible for their crimes against Gambians during the Jammeh regime. We also congratulate victims associations, the Gambian Bar Association, and all those who have worked tirelessly for justice.