Former Gambia government minister faces trial in Switzerland for crimes against humanity News
Former Gambia government minister faces trial in Switzerland for crimes against humanity

TRIAL International informed on Thursday that Ousman Sonko, a former Gambian Minister of Interior, will be tried by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court (FCC) in Bellinzona on January 8, 2024, and the trial will last till January 30. The former minister will be tried for crimes against humanity committed by him under ousted Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.

Sonko, 54, is charged with crimes against humanity, including “the killing of a political opponent in 2000; acts of sexual violence between 2000 and 2002, as well as in 2005; involvement in torture and illegal detention related to a coup plot in March 2006; and the murder of a politician in 2011″ committed under Jammeh’s reign. Nine Gambian plaintiffs will travel to Switzerland for the trial because the tenth passed away in October 2023.

In 2016, Gambia conducted its historic election that resulted in the victory of Adama Barrow, the current president of Gambia. It ousted its long-time dictator, Jammeh, who had been ruling Gambia since 1994. Jammeh, a lieutenant of the Gambian armed forces, led a coup in 1994 that deposed Dawda Jawara, the then-President of Gambia. In 1996, after a two-year transitional period, he was elected president of the country. The period witnessed systematic and widespread human rights violations as journalists and political figures were arbitrarily arrested, killed, and forcefully disappeared; people were allegedly tortured, and sexual violence took place at a rampant scale. A Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRCC) was formed in the aftermath of the election in 2017 to create a record of human rights abuses that were committed during Jammeh’s rule.

Sonko was appointed as the Minister of Interior in 2006. After the 2016 election, Sonko stepped down as a minister. He fled to Senegal and later to Sweden, wherein his asylum request was rejected. He allegedly entered Switzerland in 2016 requesting asylum. After being tipped about his presence, TRIAL International lodged charges against the accused on  January 27, 2017, a day after his arrest in Bern, Switzerland. After six years of investigation, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) filed an indictment before the FCC of Switzerland, accusing Sonko of acts encompassing torture, kidnapping, sexual violence and killings. This would be the second time for the FCC to rule on the basis of universal jurisdiction, the first time being the conviction of Liberian Rebel Commander Alieu Kosiah in 2021.

Switzerland can conduct the trials as it recognizes the principle of universal jurisdiction. This principle allows the state to prosecute the perpetrators of international crimes in their country courts regardless of where the crimes were committed and the accused’s nationality or victims. Sweden has universal jurisdiction over serious international crimes listed under the Universal Crimes Act, which incorporates the Rome Statute of 2002. Additionally, Sweden employs universal jurisdiction for crimes with a minimum sentence of four years under the Swedish Criminal Code. Sonko would become the first highest-ranking official to be tried in Europe under universal jurisdiction, said Leslie Haskell, President of TRIAL International.

The proceedings will take place openly in German, and interpretation will not be provided. TRIAL International expressed its “regret” over the decision as it would hinder the ability of people worldwide, especially the Gambian community, to comprehend the ongoing proceedings.

In November 2023, a court in Germany sentenced Bai Lowe, a former member of the Gambian paramilitary unit known as the “Junglers,” to life imprisonment for the murder of journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004 and former soldier Dawda Nyassi in 2006, as well as the attempted murder of lawyer Ousman Sillah in 2003 which constituted crimes against humanity. Germany also conducted the trials based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.