A Swiss court sentences a former Gambian interior minister to 20 years for crimes against humanity

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland’s top criminal court on Wednesday convicted a former interior minister of Gambia for crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 20 years over his role in murder, torture and other repression committed by the West African country’s security forces under its longtime dictator.

Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Ousman Sonko, Gambia’s interior minister from 2006 to 2016 under then-President Yahya Jammeh. But legal rights groups, led by TRIAL International, which helped bring the case, hailed what they called a landmark decision involving a former government official for crimes against humanity, saying it could set a precedent for international justice.

“In its judgement of 15 May 2024, the criminal chamber finds Ousman Sonko guilty of multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment, each as a crime against humanity,” the court in the southern city of Bellinzona said in a statement.

It cited repression of political opponents, journalists and suspected coup plotters under Jammeh’s 22-year rule.

Human Rights Watch trumpeted a “monumental” verdict, calling it “a major achievement for Switzerland’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for grave crimes committed abroad.”

The Swiss Attorney General’s office said it was “satisfied” with the ruling, touting a “milestone in international criminal law” and an important decision for victims in Gambia.

Defense lawyer Philippe Currat said Sonko, 55, planned to appeal the ruling to the criminal chamber's appeals court.

In a phone interview, Currat said the alleged wrongdoing didn't rise to the level of crimes against humanity, and that a direct connection to his client and the crimes was not established. He said the court should have provided more English translation for Sonko, who does not speak German — the language of the proceedings — and that failing to do so violated the rules of a fair trial.

“In what I heard today, the court was not able to specify Sonko’s individual role in the acts described, that it was a case of collective responsibility: Because he was minister, he was necessarily responsible for everything,” Currat said. “That in the end, he gets convicted because somebody has to be convicted, and there's no one else at hand – so he’s the one to do the trick."

"That’s a real problem,” he added.

Currat also argued that Swiss law — which was revised in 2011 when it comes to crimes against humanity — could not fairly be applied to acts before that date.

The two-month trial was welcomed by advocacy groups as a watershed application of the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad.

However, the court deemed that the crimes committed by Sonko did not rise to “aggravated” cases that could have brought the maximum penalty of life behind bars, according to several lawyers who attended the trial.

Sonko, who was in the courtroom for Wednesday's verdict, offered little reaction when a translation was read out in English, said TRIAL International's legal adviser Benoit Meystre, who also attended the proceedings.

Activists and legal experts say the verdict could send a message to Jammeh, who fled Gambia — an English-speaking West African country surrounded by neighboring Senegal — and remains in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Sonko — who left Gambia shortly before Jammeh lost power in 2016 — applied for asylum in Switzerland in November that year and was arrested two months later. The indictment filed by the Swiss attorney general’s office in April last year covered alleged crimes over the previous 16 years.

Because Sonko has been in custody since January 2017, he would have fewer than 13 years more behind bars if the verdict is upheld.

Among other things, the court found Sonko guilty of the murder of an alleged political opponent in 2000; torture and arbitrary detention in connection with an attempted coup d’état in 2006; the murder of a politician in 2011; illegal detention and torture — including one murder — against peaceful protesters in 2016, according to TRIAL International.

Reed Brody, an American human rights lawyer who attended the trial, said: “The long arm of the law is catching up with Yahya Jammeh’s accomplices all around the world, and hopefully will soon catch up with Jammeh himself.”

Nyima Sonko, the widow of activist Ebrima Solo Sandeng, who was killed by state security agents, said: “What goes around comes around, he (Sonko) deserved it.”

Outside the courtroom, Olimatou Sonko, the defendant’s daughter, told Swiss public broadcaster SRF “it isn’t fair” that the full proceedings of the trial weren’t translated to English from German, which her father doesn’t understand.

Philip Grant, executive director at TRIAL International, said Ousman Sonko was the highest-level former official ever to be put on trial in Europe under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Sonko, who joined the Gambian military in 1988, was appointed 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.

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

Ousman Sonko is not to be confused with leading politician Ousmane Sonko in Senegal, who spells his first name slightly differently.

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

Modou Faal, a mechanic living in the Gambian village of Lamin, said the country should move forward after the verdict and said he was concerned that it would hinder the reconciliation process.

“We can forgive but not forget,” he said.

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John reported from Serrekunda, Gambia.