Who is Ousman Sonko, the former Gambian politician on trial in Geneva?

Protest by relatives of victims of the regime of Yahya Jammeh, the former president of the Gambia [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Sonko is the highest-ranking official under former dictator Yahya Jammeh, to stand trial for widespread rights abuses.

The trial of Ousman Sonko, a former interior minister of The Gambia (not to be confused with Senegalese politician, Ousmane Sonko) began Monday in a federal court in Switzerland.

It is one of a handful of cases where individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed under the leadership of the former Gambian leader and dictator, Yahya Jammeh, will be prosecuted. If convicted, Sonko could face a life imprisonment term.

But it is also a pivotal case for Switzerland, which as part of the universal jurisdiction principle recognises the right to try alleged offenders of the most serious crimes, whether they are citizens or foreigners, as long as they are on Swiss soil. Sonko will be the second individual tried under that rule since Switzerland enforced it in 2011.

The only other person to have been tried for crimes against humanity in the country is Alieu Kosiah, a Liberian warlord who was handed a 20-year term in June 2021 for mass killings and other crimes perpetrated in the Liberian civil wars.

Here’s what to know about Sonko’s case:

Gambia crisis
A man holds a banner as Gambians cheer in Serrekunda, Gambia, January 19, 2017, after watching Adama Barrow be sworn in as Gambian president on a television broadcast from the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal [Jerome Delay/AP Photo]

What happened during the Jammeh era?

Jammeh seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1994 and ruled until 2016. His rule was an autocratic one, marked by widespread human rights abuses, including harsh crackdowns on opposition members and his critics, as well as on journalists. Sham elections, assassinations and enforced disappearances of dissenters, and at one point, the mass killing of refugees passing through The Gambia to other African countries, characterised his rule.

He also withdrew The Gambia from the Commonwealth of Nations – which comprises mostly former British colonies – and was in the process of withdrawing the country from the International Criminal Court in the Hague before his ouster.

Jammeh’s tyranny was aided by scores of cronies, many of them in official government positions, and some in more shadowy roles. The notorious death squad The Junglers for example, was a group of soldiers recruited specifically to target his enemies and torture or eliminate people as the president wished.

Eventually, he was forced out of office and into exile in Equatorial Guinea after he refused to peacefully hand over power to Adama Barrow, winner of the 2016 presidential election. Jammeh’s exit came after The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc deployed troops to Banjul to force him out. An ongoing truth and reconciliation commission in Gambia has heard cases of victims in an attempt to serve justice, but Jammeh and many of his cronies are out of reach.

What is the Swiss court accusing Sonko of?

Sonko, who served as Jammeh’s interior minister from 2006 to 2016, has been accused of complicity in torture, murder and rape during that period. His promotion to minister supposedly came because of his loyalty while he was Jammeh’s police chief. He was in charge of the police, the intelligence agency, the prison services, as well as the deadly Junglers.

In one testimony from a former Jungler speaking at a hearing of the Gambia Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), Sonko is named as one of the killers of Almamo Manneh, a member of the State Guards who Jammeh suspected of planning a countercoup. Manneh’s wife also accused Sonko of raping her multiple times after her husband’s assassination.

In September 2016, in the final months of Jammeh’s rule, Sonko applied for residency in Sweden but was denied. He is believed to have moved on to Switzerland, where he was arrested at a centre for asylum seekers in January 2017. His arrest was prompted by a complaint from Geneva-based NGO Trial International.

On April 19, 2023, the Swiss attorney general formally charged Sonko with crimes against humanity, accusing him of supporting, participating in, as well as failing to prevent “systematic and generalised attacks” that Jammeh’s security forces launched on the dictator’s opponents.

Sonko has denied the allegations against him. His lawyer, Phillipe Currat, a well-known Swiss litigator, argued in 2023 that some of the violations Sonko is accused of were carried out before the Swiss Criminal Code identified them as crimes.

What next?

The Gambian TRRC, formed in 2017, has extensively documented the violations under Jammeh and has recommended prosecution of the ex-dictator and his accomplices. But the commission has been criticised for being slow – with no hearings under way, and no sentences handed down to date.

If Sonko is convicted though, it would be a historic victory for Gambian victims who have been waiting for justice. The former minister is the highest-ranking Jammeh accomplice to face trial for crimes committed in that era.

So far, only two low-level Jammeh accomplices have faced justice. In October, Germany sentenced Bai Lowe to life imprisonment for his role as a driver to the Junglers. Lowe was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder and attempted murder.

Micheal Sang Correa, another Jungler, has appeared in court in the US state of Colorado and will stand trial from September 2024.



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