Former Gambian politician tried for murder in Swiss Milestone case | ET REALITY

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For about 16 years, Ousman Sonko wielded extensive power in Gambia’s security apparatus, crushing opposition to the West African country’s authoritarian president.

On Monday, Sonko entered a Swiss court charged with crimes against humanity, in what lawyers call a significant milestone for The Gambia, Switzerland and the broader international effort to prosecute war crimes and those who facilitated them.

In their indictment, Swiss prosecutors accused Mr. Sonko, acting alone or as part of a group, of having “deliberately killed, tortured, raped and illegally deprived people of their liberty.”

Sonko, who turns 55 on Tuesday, denies the charges. His lawyer, Philippe Currat, promised a firm challenge to the charges and the admissibility of the prosecution evidence. The alleged crimes took place between 2000 and 2016, a period of brutal repression in The Gambia in which the president, Yahya Jammeh, tightened his control over the country.

During that time, Sonko rose to commander of the presidential guard, police chief and interior minister, a portfolio he held for 10 years, becoming Jammeh’s longest-serving minister.

The two men reportedly fell out in 2016, the same year Jammeh lost his re-election bid and began a brief but unsuccessful effort to cling to power. After losing his job, Sonko sought asylum in Switzerland that year.

Swiss authorities arrested him in 2017 after TRIAL International, a Geneva-based human rights group, filed a criminal complaint against him based on the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows states to prosecute serious crimes regardless of where they are located. they committed.

European prosecutors have pursued similar cases in recent years, handing down long prison sentences for, among others, two Syrian intelligence officials convicted of crimes against humanity in Germany in 2022, and a former Iranian prosecutor, arrested while traveling in Sweden and convicted for war crimes for his participation in mass executions and torture. Mr. Sonko, as a former government minister, is the highest-ranking state official tried in a European court on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

Sonko’s trial is being watched closely in The Gambia, where victims’ demands for Jammeh and his allies to be held accountable have made slow progress. His successor, President Adama Barrow, has pledged to prosecute Jammeh, now in exile in Equatorial Guinea. But he has also allied himself politically with members of the former president’s party, accused of trying to hinder any action.

“Sonko’s trial is long overdue, the magnitude of suffering under his leadership at the Interior Ministry is overwhelming,” Ayesha Jammeh, a relative of the former president whose father was murdered by government agents in 2005, said by phone from the Gambian capital. Banjul, where she works at a support center for victims of abuse.

“It is a happy moment to see firsthand how people who committed human rights violations are finally brought to justice,” he added. “This tells them that it may take a long time, but eventually the arm of justice will catch up with them for the serious crimes they have committed.”

The charges against Sonko include participating in the murder of a soldier accused of plotting a coup, Almamo Manneh, and repeatedly raping and beating Manneh’s widow, one of the plaintiffs in the trial. He is also accused of participating in the torture of a group of suspected coup plotters and in the arrest and torture of an opposition party leader, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, who died in state custody in 2016.

The Swiss court hearing is one of a series of international trials that Gambian activists hope will prompt the government to act. A German court in November Bai Lowe sentenced, a member of an elite military unit, to life in prison for murder and crimes against humanity. Another member of the unit, Michael Correa, will be tried in the United States in September. charges of torture.

“These cases are really important for victims and survivors because they show that some kind of justice is possible and they show The Gambia that it is important to move further,” said Ela Mathews, a lawyer with the Center for Justice and Accountability, a group that acts for some plaintiffs in the Correa case.

After the German ruling in November, “all Gambians were interested,” recalled Fatoumatta Sandeng, daughter of the slain opposition leader and plaintiff in the Swiss trial.

“If the German government can do this, what about The Gambia? What are you doing at the Ministry of Justice, what have you been doing all this time?” she asked. “This creates tension and I know that the Ousman Sonko trial is going to put more pressure on the Gambian government to do something.”

The trial is also something of a milestone for Switzerland, which human rights activists said had fallen behind other European countries in prosecuting international crimes. Mr Sonko’s indictment followed a complex six-year investigation, with multiple visits by Swiss investigators to The Gambia to interview victims and collect witness testimonies.

It may also set legal precedents as the first Swiss case in which the defendant is accused not only of his own actions but also of the actions of his subordinates.

“With this case, the Swiss authorities demonstrate their willingness to thoroughly investigate international crimes and not allow alleged perpetrators of violations to enjoy a safe haven here,” said Benoit Meystre, lawyer at TRIAL International.

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