In Switzerland, a former Gambian minister sentenced to twenty years in prison for crimes against humanity

Swiss justice sentenced a former Gambian interior minister to twenty years in prison on Wednesday May 15 for various crimes against humanity under the regime of former President Yahya Jammeh

In Switzerland, a former Gambian minister sentenced to twenty years in prison for crimes against humanity

Swiss justice sentenced a former Gambian interior minister to twenty years in prison on Wednesday May 15 for various crimes against humanity under the regime of former President Yahya Jammeh. “Ousman Sonko is sentenced to a custodial sentence of twenty years,” said the registrar of the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, in southeastern Switzerland. He has the possibility of appealing to this same court.

The federal prosecutor's office had requested life imprisonment against Mr. Sonko, 55, accusing him of various crimes against humanity between 2000 and 2016. At the end of the trial, which took place from January to March, the defense pleaded for acquittal, demanding financial compensation for the years in detention. During the trial, the federal prosecutor's office and the civil parties explained why they considered the former minister responsible in particular for torture, rape and assassinations.

At the origin of the procedure, Trial International "observed great relief on the part of the complaining parties to have been present, to be able to confront Ousman Sonko and to see how he reacted to what they said", reported to Agence France-Presse (AFP) the legal advisor of the NGO, Benoît Meystre. “Some have also told us that the role they played in the trial contributes to their healing, regardless of the verdict that will be rendered. »

The victims' lawyers explained during the trial how there was no doubt, in their view, that Mr. Sonko was part of ex-President Yahya Jammeh's inner circle, from the beginning to almost the end of his reign ( 1994-2016), and that he fully supported the repressive measures of his regime. The federal prosecutor's office accused him of having acted in the exercise of his duties, first as a member of the army, then as inspector general of police and finally as minister. He was arrested on January 26, 2017 in Switzerland, where he requested asylum after being dismissed from his ministerial functions, which he held for ten years, until September 2016.

Universal jurisdiction

This is the first time in Switzerland that the notion of crimes against humanity – crimes committed as part of a large-scale attack targeting civilians – was addressed at first instance. The defense, however, argued that the conditions for a crime against humanity were not met and that the facts retained by the prosecution were isolated acts for which the former Minister of the Interior bears no responsibility.

“There is no systematic nature and the small number of victims, for each episode taken separately or in total, does not reach the threshold required to consider that it could be a generalized attack,” he told AFP. his lawyer, Philippe Currat. In addition, he insisted, “we have demonstrated that the abuses committed against the victims are not attributable to Ousman Sonko but to the NIA [National Intelligence Agency] and the Junglers [paramilitary group], who do not were never under its authority or effective control.”

The defense also believes that certain elements of the indictment escape Swiss legislation because they predate 2011, the date since which Switzerland has recognized universal jurisdiction to try certain serious crimes under international law. It was also in 2011 that crimes against humanity were included in Swiss law.

This trial "will give new impetus to efforts in The Gambia to prosecute the most serious crimes of the Yahya Jammeh regime, efforts which, after a long delay, are finally accelerating," commented Reed Brody, a lawyer for the International Commission of Jurists which works with Jammeh's victims and which followed the trial.

The Gambian government endorsed in 2022 the recommendations of a commission that looked into atrocities perpetrated during the Jammeh era. Authorities agreed to prosecute seventy people, including Mr. Jammeh, who went into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. In April, the Gambian Parliament passed two bills to create the office of the special prosecutor to prosecute cases identified by the commission and providing for a special tribunal.