Mixed reactions to conviction of ex-Gambian minister; sexual violence charges dismissed

BELLINZONA, Switzerland – Victims have expressed joy and frustration at the guilty verdict handed to Ousman Sonko, Gambia’s former interior minister, in his trial for crimes against humanity committed under the leadership of former dictator Yahya Jammeh in Switzerland.

The Swiss Federal Court handed Mr Sonko a 20-year prison sentence for “multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment, each as a crime against humanity,” according to a statement issued by the Court. Sonko was also ordered to pay $3.9 million in legal fees and compensation to the nine plaintiffs in the case.

Mr Sonko becomes the highest-ranking official convicted in a European court under the principal of universal jurisdiction, which holds that crimes against humanity can be tried anywhere, regardless of where they were committed.

Perpetrators from Liberia, Rwanda and Syria are among others convicted in Europe. Activists said it was a warning to perpetrators everywhere who tried to hide from prosecution in exile. They include Mr Jammeh, who is in Equatorial Guinea.

“This decision gives us the closure we had been waiting for long and shows that there is no hiding place for anyone who perpetrated international crimes in The Gambia, not even the highest-level individuals,” said Ramzia Diab Ghanim, one of the ten plaintiffs in the case, in a statement issued by TRIAL International, justice advocates who supported the victims in the case.

“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 Reed Brody, a member of the International Commission of Jurists who was instrumental in developing universal jurisdiction. “The long arm of the law is catching up with Jammeh’s accomplices all around the world, and hopefully will soon catch up with Jammeh himself.”

But to the disappointment of some victims, the court dismissed charges of gender-based violence.

Mr Sonko was accused of raping one woman and sitting on an investigation panel that oversaw the torture and rape of another at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency. Without judging whether the alleged crimes took place, the Court found the prosecution did not show the alleged offences met the standard of “crimes against humanity”.

During Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission hearings the victims of rape and other sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) were subjected to insults and taunts. They said this latest rejection of their claims, by a European court, has come as a blow.

“We are very disappointed to see that the court has decided to discontinue the case concerning the GBV-related charges,” said Anninna Mullis, a lawyer for one of the alleged rape victims. “While it is important to highlight that the defendant was not acquitted but procedural reasons have led the judges to this conclusion, the decision is nonetheless another example for the widespread disregard of SGBV.

Rather than acknowledging structural and systematic aspects of SGBV in The Gambia during the rule of Yahya Jammeh, the court deems the charges brought by my client against the defendant as isolated acts outside the scope of crimes against humanity–a position we strongly disagree with.”

The Court did order the rape victims be included in a compensation payment Mr Sonko was ordered to pay. TRIAL International said victims were considering an appeal of that aspect of the verdict.

Gambia’s Truth Commission, which the Swiss court relied on for evidence of the context of violations under Mr Jammeh, concluded sexual violence was widespread and used as a torture tool for political opponents.

“Sexual violence was used to repress, punish, intimidate, humiliate and ill-treat men and women who were opposed to or perceived as being opposed to the former President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh,” said the Truth Commission.

Gambian human rights activists said the ruling risked perpetuating a double standard for sexual violence crimes.

“Sexual violence was rampant in detentions. Both women and men endured sexual violence in detention,” said Fatou Baldeh, Executive Director of Women in Liberation and Leadership, a leading Gambian rights organization. “We have always feared that other violations will be taken more seriously than sexual violence. I think this will discourage women more, from coming forth with their stories of sexual violence as we move forward with prosecutions of other perpetrators.”

Otherwise victims expressed relief that Mr Sonko had finally been found responsible for their suffering.

The verdict is a “powerful precedent,” said Isatou Jammeh, a niece of Jammeh whose father was murdered by Mr Jammeh’s hit squad known as the Junglers, according to the Truth Commission. She said it gives victims hope that all perpetrators of crimes under the Jammeh regime will someday be held to account.

The Federal Court ordered the former minister to pay the legal costs of victims and the Swiss state. It also ordered USD$250,000 payment to the nine plaintiffs for pain and suffering. The total added to USD$3.9 million, (D268 million). It is not clear how much money and assets Sonko has.

The court will now investigate and attempt to seize assets where possible. Experts said it was possible the money could be pursued in a civil case in Gambia. The Court had seized USD$16,000 from Mr Sonko during his arrest. It has been shared among the plaintiffs.

Mr Sonko, who was in the court for the verdict, showed little emotion according to TRIAL International’s legal adviser Benoit Meystre. In an interview with the Associated Press after the verdict his lawyer Philip Currat said they would appeal the verdict.

“In what I heard today, the court was not able to specify Sonko’s individual role in the acts described, that it was a case of collective responsibility: Because he was minister, he was necessarily responsible for everything,” Mr Currat said.

Mr Currat also said the court should have provided English translation for Sonko, who does not speak German — the language of the proceedings — and that failing to do so violated the rules of a fair trial.

Among Mr Sonko’s four person legal team was his daughter Olimatou Sonko.

“I feel like the trial was unfair,” Ms Sonko said. “Because even if you see the people who spoke during this trial, there were no witnesses on our side… I don’t think that’s a fair trial because if you are having a trial, there should be witnesses from both sides. The decision of the court, we will analyse it once we have it in English so we can discuss the main issues with Sonko. This is for him to decide if we are going to appeal or not.”

Mr Sonko has been detained for seven years so he would be free in a maximum of 13 years if the verdict is upheld. He could be released years earlier for good behavior and would then likely be compelled to return to West Africa.

The Gambian Ministry of Justice welcomed the verdict. “The importance of this verdict in the global fight against impunity,” it said in a statement. It noted the verdict comes at a “crucial moment in the country’s history” as it makes a transition from an autocratic system to a democratic system of governance. The Ministry thanked “Swiss authorities, in particular to the Attorney General’s Office and the Swiss Embassy in The Gambia, for their close partnership and mutual legal assistance throughout the process.”

The Gambia is moving quickly to establish a hybrid Gambia and international court to try accused perpetrators under Jammeh’s regime.

Mr Sonko fled Gambia in 2016 after a fallout with Jammeh. Mr Sonko had served him at various levels, rising from the head of state guards, an elite unit protecting the Gambian presidency— to his police chief and interior minister, for a period spanning a decade.

Mr Sonko is considered one of his most loyal accomplices. Among his alleged crimes is the killings of 49 West African migrants from Ghana and other countries in 2006. Jammeh was found to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people, according to the country’s Truth Commission.

This story was a collaboration with The Republic and Premium Times Nigeria as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Mariam travelled to Bellinzona with funding from Reporters Without Borders.