For about 16 years, Ousman Sonko wielded far-reaching energy in Gambia’s safety equipment, crushing opposition to the West African nation’s authoritarian president.
On Monday, Mr. Sonko appeared earlier than a Swiss courtroom charged with crimes towards humanity, in what legal professionals name a significant milestone for Gambia, Switzerland and the broader worldwide efforts to prosecute struggle crimes and people who facilitated them.
Of their indictment, Swiss prosecutors accused Mr. Sonko of, alone or as a part of a bunch, “deliberately murdering, torturing, raping and unlawfully depriving people of their liberty.”
Mr Sonko, who turns 55 on Tuesday, denies the allegations. His lawyer, Philippe Currat, promised a stiff problem to the allegations and the admissibility of the prosecution’s proof. The alleged crimes passed off between 2000 and 2016, a interval of brutal repression in Gambia throughout which the president, Yahya Jammeh, tightened his grip on the nation.
Throughout that point, Mr. Sonko rose to develop into commander of the presidential guard, chief of police and inside minister, a portfolio he held for 10 years, making him Mr. Jammeh’s longest-serving minister.
The 2 males reportedly fell out in 2016 – the identical 12 months Jammeh misplaced a bid for re-election and commenced a quick, failed bid to remain in energy. After shedding his job, Mr. Sonko sought asylum in Switzerland that 12 months.
Swiss authorities arrested him in 2017 after TRIAL Worldwide, a human rights group based mostly in Geneva, filed a prison criticism towards him underneath the authorized precept of common jurisdiction, which permits states to prosecute critical crimes no matter the place they had been dedicated.
European prosecutors have been dealing with related instances in recent times, handing down lengthy jail sentences to, amongst others, two Syrian intelligence officers convicted in Germany in 2022 for crimes towards humanity, and a former Iranian prosecutor, who was arrested whereas touring via Sweden and convicted of struggle crimes for his half in mass executions and torture. As a former minister, Mr Sonko is the highest-ranking state official to be tried in a European courtroom on the idea of common jurisdiction.
Mr. Sonko’s trial is being intently watched in Gambia, the place victims’ calls for for accountability from Mr. Jammeh and his allies are making gradual progress. His successor, President Adama Barrow, has dedicated to prosecuting Mr Jammeh, who’s now in exile in Equatorial Guinea. However he has additionally cast political alliances with members of the ex-president’s occasion, who’re accused of making an attempt to dam any motion.
“The Sonko trial is lengthy overdue, the extent of struggling underneath his management within the Ministry of Inside is overwhelming,” Ayesha Jammeh, a relative of the ex-president whose father was killed by authorities brokers in 2005, mentioned by phone from the capital of Gambia: Banjul, the place she works in a middle that helps victims of abuse.
“It’s a completely happy second to personally see individuals who have dedicated human rights violations lastly dropped at justice,” she added. “This tells them that it might take a very long time, however ultimately the arm of justice will meet up with them for the intense crimes they dedicated.”
The fees towards Mr. Sonko embrace taking part within the homicide of a soldier accused of plotting a coup, Almamo Manneh, and repeatedly raping and beating the widow of Mr. Manneh, one of many plaintiffs within the lawsuit . He’s additionally accused of involvement within the torture of a bunch of suspected coup plotters and within the arrest and torture of an opposition occasion chief, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, who died in state custody in 2016.
The listening to within the Swiss courtroom is a part of a sequence of worldwide trials that Gambian activists hope will spur the federal government into motion. A German courtroom sentenced Bai Lowe, a member of an elite army unit, to life imprisonment in November for homicide and crimes towards humanity. One other member of the unit, Michael Correa, will stand trial in the US in September on torture costs.
“These instances are crucial for victims and survivors as a result of it exhibits that some type of justice is feasible and exhibits The Gambia that it is very important transfer ahead,” mentioned Ela Mathews, legal professional on the Heart for Justice and Accountability, a bunch appearing on behalf of some. plaintiffs within the Correa case.
After the German ruling in November, “each Gambian was ,” remembers Fatoumatta Sandeng, the daughter of the murdered opposition chief and prosecutor within the Swiss trial.
“If the German authorities can do that, what about Gambia? What are you doing at Justice, what have you ever been doing all this time?” she requested. “It brings warmth and I do know the trial of Ousman Sonko will put extra strain on the Gambian authorities to do one thing.”
The trial can also be one thing of a milestone for Switzerland, which rights activists say lags behind different European nations in prosecuting worldwide crimes. The indictment towards Mr. Sonko adopted a fancy six-year investigation, which included a number of visits by Swiss investigators to Gambia to interview victims and collect witness statements.
It may additionally set authorized precedents, as it’s the first Swiss case through which the suspect is charged not just for his personal actions, but in addition for the actions of subordinates.
“With this case, the Swiss authorities display their will to totally examine worldwide crimes and to not enable alleged perpetrators of violations to take pleasure in a secure haven right here,” mentioned Benoit Meystre, lawyer for TRIAL Worldwide.