Switzerland is set to try Ousman Sonko, a former Gambian minister under ousted dictator Yahya Jammeh, for crimes against humanity. The trial, scheduled from January 8th to January 30th at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, marks a significant milestone as it utilises the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing the prosecution of grave crimes anywhere.
Ousman Sonko, the former interior minister, will become the highest-ranking official to be tried in Europe under this principle, according to the Swiss campaign group TRIAL International, which initiated the complaint against him. The charges include murder, multiple rapes, and torture allegedly committed between 2000 and 2016, making this Switzerland’s second trial ever for crimes against humanity. Sonko vehemently denies all charges.
Nine Gambian plaintiffs, including a serial rape victim, will travel to Switzerland for the trial, a case that human rights activists view as crucial for establishing global accountability for the worst atrocities. Among the charges, Sonko is accused of holding Madi Ceesay, a 67-year-old plaintiff, in detention and subjecting him to torture.
Expressing optimism about the trial, Ceesay stated, “It has been a long period of waiting, waiting with anger, anxiety. But I am very optimistic now and I feel so happy. I am smelling justice.”
Sonko’s lawyer, Philippe Currat, plans to challenge the case’s legitimacy, citing issues with investigations and hearings. He expresses concern over the handling of the file, pointing out that some evidence in the indictment is based on “secret” hearings in Gambia, and that interviewees were not informed of their rights.
Binta Jamba, one of the plaintiffs, alleges multiple rapes by Sonko between 2000 and 2002 after he murdered her husband in connection with an alleged planned coup attempt. The indictment details a harrowing account of captivity, beatings, and repeated rapes, leading to two pregnancies for which Sonko paid for abortions.
Currat contends that he can prove Sonko’s absence abroad during much of the period of the rape accusations. He also argues that certain crimes, including the rape charges, occurred before a relevant Swiss law took effect in 2011 and are therefore inadmissible.
Arrested in Switzerland in early 2017 while seeking asylum, Ousman Sonko, now 54, faces a potential life sentence as the maximum penalty. Despite the gravity of the charges, Currat claims that Sonko has endured cruel treatment in Swiss jails, including denial of food and inadequate medical care.
Fatoumatta Sandeng, the daughter of Solo Sandeng, a Gambian opposition activist killed in custody in 2016, expresses eagerness to confront Sonko in court. She emphasises the importance of accountability, stating, If we don’t hold people accountable, things like this will keep happening in Gambia, in Africa, all over the world.”