An Enforcer for a Strongman President Goes on Trial in Milestone Swiss Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

European prosecutors have pursued similar cases in recent years, delivering lengthy jail 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 of war crimes for his part in mass execution and torture. Mr. Sonko, as a former government minister, is the highest-ranking state official to be tried in a European court on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

Mr. Sonko’s trial is being keenly followed in Gambia, where victims’ demands for accountability for Mr. Jammeh and his allies have made slow progress. His successor, President Adama Barrow, has committed to prosecuting Mr. Jammeh, now in exile in Equatorial Guinea. But he has also allied politically with members of the ex-president’s party who have been accused of trying to stall any action.

“The Sonko trial is long overdue, the magnitude of suffering under his leadership in the ministry of interior is overwhelming” Ayesha Jammeh, a relative of the ex-president whose father was killed by government agents in 2005, said by phone from Gambia’s capital, Banjul, where she works at a center supporting victims of abuse.

“It’s a happy moment for personally seeing people who committed human rights violations are finally being taken to court,” she added. “This tells them it may take a long time but eventually the arm of justice will catch up with them for the serious crimes the have committed.”

The charges against Mr. Sonko include participating in the murder of a soldier accused of plotting a coup, Almamo Manneh, and repeatedly raping and beating Mr. Manneh’s widow, one of the plaintiffs in the trial. He is also accused of involvement in the torture of a group ofsuspected 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 spur the government to action. A German court in November sentenced Bai Lowe, a member of an elite military unit, to life imprisonment for murder and crimes against humanity. Another member of the unit, Michael Correa, is set to go on trial in the United States in September on charges of torture.

“These cases are really important for victims and survivors because it shows some sort of justice is possible and it shows the Gambia that it’s important to move further,” Ela Mathews, an attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability, a group acting for some plaintiffs in the Correa case.

After the German ruling in November, “every single Gambian was interested,” recalled Fatoumatta Sandeng, the daughter of the murdered opposition leader and a plaintiff in the Swiss trial.

“If the German government can do this, how about the Gambia? What are you doing in the Ministry of Justice, what have you been doing all this time?” she asked. “It does bring heat and I know the Ousman Sonko trial is going to bring more pressure on the Gambia government to do something.”

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

It may also set legal precedents as the first Swiss case where the defendant is charged not only for his own actions but for the actions of subordinates.

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

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