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Swiss court jails Gambian ex-minister for crimes against humanity

Complainants in the legal case against Gambia's ex-interior minister Ousman Sonko travelled to southern Switzerland for the opening of the trial in January
Complainants in the legal case against Gambia's ex-interior minister Ousman Sonko travelled to southern Switzerland for the opening of the trial in January - Copyright AFP Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE
Complainants in the legal case against Gambia's ex-interior minister Ousman Sonko travelled to southern Switzerland for the opening of the trial in January - Copyright AFP Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE

Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court on Wednesday sentenced Gambian ex-interior minister Ousman Sonko to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity committed under the regime of former dictator Yahya Jammeh.

Sonko, 55, was convicted of a string of offences committed between 2000 and 2016.

“The Criminal Chamber finds Ousman Sonko guilty of multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment, each as a crime against humanity,” a court statement said.

“Sonko committed these crimes… as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population.

“The Criminal Chamber sentences Ousman Sonko to a prison term of 20 years.”

He will also be expelled from Switzerland for 12 years once the sentence has been served, and must also pay compensation to the civil claimants “for the non-material pain and suffering they sustained”, the court said.

Sonko can appeal against the verdict.

– Universal jurisdiction –

He was tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide regardless of where they were committed.

The NGO Trial International — which filed the complaint leading to Sonko’s arrest — said he was the highest-ranking state official ever to be tried in Europe for international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Trial’s executive director Philip Grant said the verdict sent a “resounding message against impunity”.

“Minister-level perpetrators are now within reach of justice,” he said on X.

Sonko has been in Swiss custody since his arrest in January 2017 after applying for asylum following his sacking from the West African nation’s government.

His time already served in custody will be taken into account in his sentence.

“The conviction of Ousman Sonko, one of the pillars of Yahya Jammeh’s brutal regime, is a major step on the long road to justice for Jammeh’s victims,” said lawyer Reed Brody, a member of the International Commission of Jurists.

“This verdict confirms that justice knows no borders and that ‘universal jurisdiction’ has become a powerful tool to bring to book tyrants and torturers who thought they had escaped justice,” he said in a statement.

Brody works with Jammeh’s victims and followed the court case in Bellinzona.

– String of convictions –

Sonko’s lawyers had argued that he should not have been tried on any counts predating 2011 when universal jurisdiction came into force in Switzerland.

State prosecutors had sought life imprisonment for Sonko at the trial in Bellinzona, southern Switzerland, which was heard in January and March.

The court ruled that Sonko, in complicity with others, intentionally killed a soldier suspected of a coup; tortured army personnel, politicians and journalists and falsely imprisoned them in connection with a failed coup attempt; murdered a former member of parliament; and tortured several opposition members.

Charges relating to alleged rape as a crime against humanity were dropped as the court could not establish an attack on the civilian population, meaning Switzerland did not have jurisdiction.

The court said Sonko was a “close confidant” of Jammeh, who ruled The Gambia with an iron grip from 1994 to 2016.

Sonko was accused of committing the crimes first within the army, then as inspector general of the police, and finally as the interior minister from 2006 to 2016.

During the trial, the civil parties involved argued why they considered Sonko to be responsible for the alleged crimes.

– Jammeh and his ‘henchmen’ –

“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,” Brody said.

“Jammeh’s henchmen have been convicted in Germany and now in Switzerland and another trial is approaching in the United States,” he added.

“Most importantly, the Gambian government, after many years, is finally moving towards the prosecution of Jammeh himself,” Brody said.

In 2022, the Gambian government endorsed the recommendations of a commission that looked into the atrocities perpetrated during the Jammeh era.

The authorities agreed to prosecute 70 people, starting with Jammeh, who went into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017.

In April, the Gambian parliament passed bills to establish the Office of the Special Prosecutor to prosecute cases identified by the commission and provide for a special court.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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