BELLINZONA, Switzerland—Ousman Sonko, a 54-year-old former Gambian police chief and interior minister, appeared in court today for the opening of a trial in the Swiss city of Bellinzona. The Swiss Attorney General’s office, along with nine plaintiffs, is accusing Sonko of torture, murder, false imprisonment, rape, and deprivation of liberty, allegedly perpetrated against Gambians during the 22-year rule of Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh.
Sonko appeared in court calm and clean-cut. He wore a dark blue suit and hung his head low as the charges against him were laid out.
Mere metres away, sat several plaintiffs who had travelled from The Gambia to testify against Sonko. Emotions were high, as many bear lasting marks of Jammeh’s brutal rule: Fatou Camara was allegedly tortured; Binta Jamba lost a husband. The person they blame for their suffering, Sonko, denied all wrongdoing.
Camara, a 47-year-old native of Basse, a settlement some 300 km from Banjul, was among over a dozen opposition activists who protested for electoral reforms in April 2016 and were arrested and tortured. One activist, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, died in custody. Camara was beaten so severely that she still suffers from an eye and hip injury.
“They beat me until I fainted, and when I woke up, I found myself dumped in the grass in an open courtyard. They came and poured water on me. My wrapper was completely wet,” Camara told the Gambia’s Truth Commission (TRCC) in October 2019.
In the courtroom today, as security guards escorted Sonko out during a break, tears rolled down Camara’s face. “I never thought this day would come– the day I will meet Ousman Sonko in court,” she said. “I hope we will have justice. His successful conviction will serve as a lesson to others,” she added.
Camara is not alone. Madi Ceesay, now a lawmaker representing the Serrakunda West constituency in the Gambia parliament, was managing director of The Independent newspaper when he was arrested and tortured in 2006 with journalist Musa Saidykhan. He, too, holds Sonko responsible for his suffering.
“Being here and seeing Sonko at the other side of the table is a relief for me… I hope I will have justice,” said Ceesay.
Sonko’s trial “a step towards justice”
The trial kicked off with much anticipation. Dozens of journalists, victims, human rights lawyers and activists gathered here as Sonko appeared before a 3-member panel of judges over charges of crimes against humanity.
Reed Brody, a member of the International Commission of Jurists, was involved in mobilising victims of rights violations under Jammeh. He said the beginning of Sonko’s trial is a step towards bringing Jammeh to justice.
“We are still years away from bringing Yahya Jammeh to justice. But this is an important step for the victims.” Brody was in The Gambia when Binta Jamba testified before the TRRC. “I was going around, and everybody was listening to their transistor radios to [Jamba’s] testimonies. And now, she is here testifying before the man who raped her,” said Brody outside of the Bellinzona courtroom. Fatoumata Sandeng, another plaintiff, “is going to testify before the man who tortured her father,” Brody said. “These are huge steps for justice and for victims.”
Sonko was arrested in Switzerland in January 2017 after Trial International, a Geneva-based human rights organisation launched a criminal complaint against him. Trial’s executive director, Philip Grant, attended the opening. “There are lots of parameters that need to be met to bring Jammeh to justice,” he said. “We believe these trials, by the sheer fact that they are taking place, but also by the evidence they might uncover, will provide fuel for the endeavour to bring Jammeh to justice,” said Grant.
‘Switzerland has no jurisdiction’
Philippe Currat, Sonko’s lawyer, in a more than three-hour submission, argued that Switzerland does not have jurisdiction to try Sonko on events before January 2011, as they occurred before the offence of “crimes against humanity” came into force in Switzerland. According to Currat, crimes against humanity are the only offence for which “universal jurisdiction” – the legal principle that holds international crimes should be prosecuted regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the perpetrators and the victims – would apply.
If the court agrees, half of the charges could be dropped. “Since the offence of crimes against humanity only came into force in Switzerland on 1st January 2011, and this offence is the only charge contained in the indictment for which the Swiss authorities have universal jurisdiction to potentially bring Ousman SONKO to justice, it is, therefore not possible to apply the offence to acts committed before 1 January 2011,” argued Currat.
Currat argued that the crime of torture cannot be applied in Sonko’s case, as it “is a crime in the Swiss law only as a crime against humanity,” which could be held unenforceable. Currat also claimed that a number of witnesses were heard in a process that violated the law.
The judges make a ruling on these submissions tomorrow.
This was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.