By Mustapha K Darboe with New Narratives
Bellinzona, Switzerland–Philippe Currat, a Swiss attorney defending Ousman Sonko, Gambia’s former interior minister currently on trial in Switzerland for crimes against humanity, said prosecutors have failed to prove their case. Currat said that after 13 days of hearings, including the testimonies of 11 witnesses, prosecutors have not provided sufficient evidence linking Sonko to the violations he is accused of.
Arrested in January 2017, the Swiss Attorney General’s office, along with 10 plaintiffs from Gambia, is accusing Sonko of torture, murder, false imprisonment, rape, and deprivation of liberty, allegedly perpetrated against Gambians during the 22-year rule of ex-president Yahya Jammeh.
Sonko is the second person to face trial in Switzerland under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which holds that crimes against humanity are committed against all humans regardless of where they were committed. The first person to face trial in Switzerland under universal jurisdiction, Alieu Kosiah of Liberia, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2022.
Swiss prosecutors have tried to prove Sonko’s responsibility for torture through his alleged participation in various investigation panels as inspector general or for ordering or abetting abuse as interior minister.
In 2006, following a failed coup, dozens of civilians and military personnel, were arrested and detained, during which they were allegedly tortured. Several plaintiffs testified to such events, but Sonko maintained he was not a member of the panel that would have overseen their alleged torture. “He was there on the first day… This was before the people were tortured. Once again, these people were tortured, and they were under the custody of the NIA and the Junglers,” and not Sonko, Currat argued.
Currat argued the prosecution failed to establish Sonko’s role in the alleged torture of the plaintiffs. “What is missing is the link between torture at the NIA [National Intelligence Agency] and Ousman Sonko,” argued Currat.
During his testimony, Sonko, who denied any participation or knowledge in the arrest and torture of protestors at NIA in 2016, said he learned “much later” what had occurred, and said the police acted “in accordance with the Gambian law,” with “proportionate use of force” when arresting them.
Sonko served under Jammeh as police chief for one year and interior minister for 10 years. He was in charge of Gambia’s prisons and internal security matters for half of Jammeh’s presidency—a leader who stands accused of using police and prisons as tools to oppress and neutralise political opponents.
During Gambia’s Truth Commission hearings, several witnesses testified that the Security Wing at the country’s central prison Mile 2—the area of the prison where high-profile prisoners are kept—was used as a torture and arbitrary detention ground for members of Jammeh’s hit-squad, the Junglers. Sonko maintained that the Security Wing had been under the control of the State Guards, elite forces guarding the presidency.
In the second week of the trial, two prison officers, Lamin Sanneh and Abdou Jammeh, testified to torture, and poor food and hygiene conditions at Mile 2 prison.
“Prisons in The Gambia are notoriously substandard, but this is not the result of Gambian state policy, but rather a historical legacy with which we have to come to terms,” said Sonko, while adding that he tripled the budget for food for prisoners during his time as interior minister.
According to the human rights committee of Gambia’s parliament, however, the food ration for a prisoner in the Gambia is currently D5 per person, which is the cost of half a loaf of bread in the country.
The hearing of witnesses concluded with the testimony of Madi Ceesay, the former general manager of The Independent arrested in March 2006 with the paper’s editor-in-chief Musa Saidykhan. Both were allegedly tortured and detained for 22 days at the premises of the NIA for publishing false information about the alleged involvement of the former deputy director of NIA, Samba Bah, in a foiled coup that year.
The bi-weekly newspaper was “forcibly shut down,” by members of the police intervention unit, according to local and international press freedom organizations. But Sonko claimed that officials obtained a court order to shut down the paper. According to the Gambia Press Union, however, all 15 incidents of media closure in Banjul, under Jammeh, were arbitrary.
Sonko denied any knowledge or involvement in the alleged torture of Musa and Madi. At least two civilians—one of whom was allegedly raped—and one soldier also testified they were tortured in 2006. They blamed Sonko for participating in the investigation panel that ordered or endorsed their ill-treatment.
Sonko also stands accused of participating in the torture and death in state custody of Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the leader of a protest in April 2016. At least five alleged torture victims who participated in protests have since died, and one of them—Nogoi Njie—was expected to testify against Sonko in Switzerland.
Three alleged torture victims—Fatoumatta Jawara, Fatou Camara and Modou Ngum—testified against Sonko. Unlike Ngum, Jawara and Camara did not testify to seeing Sonko at the paramilitary or NIA headquarters, where they were allegedly tortured. The country’s former police chief—Yankuba Sonko, who was Sonko’s direct subordinate—told Swiss investigators that he had reservations regarding how protests on April 14 and 16 were handled but was not explicit about whether he communicated this to Ousman.
Rape as a form of torture
Sonko faces one allegation of rape by Binta Jamba, the widow of Almamo Manneh, a former state guards soldier who served under Sonko in 2000. Jamba said she was abused over a period of five years, from 2000 to 2005.
The prosecutors are trying to prove that Sonko also participated in at least one investigation panel that oversaw the torture and rape of a political detainee in 2006. They argued that rape was used as an instrument of torture by Jammeh’s regime.
Currat, Sonko’s lawyer, told journalists that he did not cross-examine Jamba, because her “contradictory statements” had already discredited her testimony. Several witnesses, including Demba Dem, alleged that Sonko is a “womaniser” who does not respect women.
A former wife of Sonko— with whom he had a son— came to testify to his character.
Though Njemeh Bah did not take the stand, she submitted a one-page statement which was admitted by the court. “I haven’t witnessed or heard a glimpse of any of the undertakings that he’s being accused of,” she stated in her statement. “I stand here as a living testament that for the duration that I knew him, he was a harmless, caring and considerate figure who would go to great lengths to make someone safe and happy.”
The Swiss court must now decide if Sonko’s alleged crimes were part of a broader context of state-sponsored terror visited upon Gambians during Jammeh’s 22-year rule.
The hearings are closed until March 4, when the court will hear the lawyer’s pleading statements.
This was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.