Former Gambian minister charged with crimes against humanity

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Ousman Sonko

Swiss prosecutors have charged a former interior minister of the Gambia with crimes against humanity for his alleged role in years of repression by the west African country’s security forces against opponents of its long-time dictator.

Ousman Sonko was the Gambia’s interior minister from 2006 to 2016 under then-President Yahya Jammeh. He applied for asylum in Switzerland in November 2016 and was arrested in January 2017.

The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) said the indictment, which was filed on Monday in Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, covers alleged crimes between 2000 and 2016.

Sonko “is accused, in his various capacities and positions, of having supported, participated in and failed to prevent systematic and generalised attacks as part of the repression carried out by the Gambian security forces against all opponents of the regime”, the office said in a statementExternal link on Tuesday.

Jammeh, who seized control in a 1994 coup, lost the Gambia’s 2016 presidential election but refused to concede defeat to Adama Barrow. Jammeh eventually fled amid threats of a regional military intervention to force him from power.

Asylum-seeker

Sonko, who joined the Gambian military in 1988, was appointed as commander of the State Guard in 2003, a position in which he was responsible for Jammeh’s security, Swiss prosecutors said. He was made inspector general of the Gambian police in 2005.

Sonko was removed as interior minister in September 2016, a few months before the end of Jammeh’s government, and left the Gambia for Europe to seek asylum.

Sonko was arrested in January 2017 in Bern, where he had been living for several months as an asylum-seeker in a transit centre. He has been in jail ever since. His case was brought following a complaint from the Geneva-based NGO TRIAL International, initially for torture, which was then requalified as crimes against humanity.

Swiss prosecutors said they conducted numerous interviews with the suspect, as well with about 40 interviews with plaintiffs, witnesses and others providing information, and made six trips to the Gambia during their investigation.

The OAG said it “accuses the defendant in particular of having, in the context of five events between 2000 and 2016, participated, ordered, facilitated and/or failed to prevent killings, acts of torture, acts of rape and numerous unlawful detentions”.

Universal jurisdiction

“We are very satisfied that this is going ahead,” said Philip Grant, executive director of TRIAL International.

“We hope this will generate momentum and that the trial will put pressure on Equatorial Guinea to eventually extradite Jammeh,” he added, referring to the country where the Gambia’s former president fled to after a political crisis in 2017.

He said Sonko would be the highest political figure ever to be brought to trial in Europe under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

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