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Justice Diary of not just any day

By Federico Franchini, Lamoné, Switzerland

The former Gambian Minister of Interior, Ousman Sonko, has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity. A historic sentence for Switzerland, but above all for the small West African country which, not without difficulty, is trying to overcome the traumas left by the bloody dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh. “Area” newspaper followed the day on which the sentence was announced together with two Gambian journalists.

7.30 am: the wait

‘I am very nervous. This day is too important for Gambia and its people’. Mariam Sankanu, a Gambian journalist, is sitting in our kitchen, sipping a black tea. She has little desire to eat. At her side, her colleague Sanna Camara, is equally tense. She drinks her herbal tea and shows us her article on the front page of The Point newspaper: ‘D-Day for Ousman Sonko’. Today, the Criminal Court of the Federal Criminal Court (FCC) will announce its decision on their country’s former interior minister, Ousman Sonko. The man, 55, is accused by the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (MPC) of crimes against humanity.

The trial took place in two parts, in January and March 2024. Mariam and Sanna followed it all, from beginning to end. They were the only voice of a historic trial for their country. They certainly could not miss the decisive day, that of the reading of the verdict. They did everything they could to be there: ‘For us to have followed the trial beforehand and still be here today, in Switzerland, to give the Gambian population an account of the decision taken by the Swiss judges is fundamental,’ the two journalists tell us in unison. Coming to Ticino was not easy. For the third time, they had to travel from Banjul to Dakar, Senegal, where the Swiss embassy was noted for excessive formalism. The plane tickets financed by the Swiss office of Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) were no good: the arrival was in Milan but, for the embassy bureaucrats, tickets were needed to prove the actual arrival in Switzerland.

9.15 am: arrival at the court

We arrive in Bellinzona in the pouring rain and the first person we meet is Reed Brody, an American lawyer, nicknamed “the dictator hunter.” Brody is something of a mythical figure for those who work in the field of international justice. He was responsible for the trial of former Chadian dictator, Hissène Habré, convicted of crimes against humanity in Senegal in 2016. Brody has also worked with the victims of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, and has recently been working on what happened in Gambia under the dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh, which ended in 2017. His is a lightning trip; tomorrow he leaves for New York. However, his presence in Bellinzona shows the importance of the day: ‘I could not miss this historic moment. Sonko is the highest-ranking person to be judged in Europe according to the principle of universal competence’.

It is precisely on the basis of this principle that war crimes and crimes against humanity can be prosecuted anywhere, regardless of the geographical or temporal distance of the events. Of course, there has to be a link to Switzerland, which in this case is the fact that Ousman Sonko sought asylum in Switzerland when the Jammeh regime was about to collapse. It was in an asylum centre in Canton Bern that he was found in 2017. Then, following a criminal complaint by the NGO, TRIAL International, he was arrested and the long investigation that led to this year’s trial began.

Outside the court the environment is different. During the long days of the trial there were few journalists present. Today, however, there are TV crews and the media presence is very strong. Sanna and Mariam are highly solicited by the Swiss and foreign journalists present: ‘I am not used to this media exposure,’ says Mariam, who, also for security reasons as an investigative journalist, does not like to appear publicly on video or in photographs. We talk briefly with Benoit Meystre, of TRIAL International: “After years of working on this dossier alongside the victims, this is also the decisive day for us. I really don’t know what to expect,’ he tells us without saying too much. The victims are not present. The trip from Gambia costs too much. There is only Fatoumatta Sandeng, who lives in Germany: she is the daughter of Solo Sandeng, a political activist killed in 2016 under Sonko’s orders. Also arriving is the defendant’s lawyer, Philippe Currat, and the daughter of the former minister. The parties greet each other, the atmosphere is cordial. But behind this apparent calm hides a certain tension: the decision that will arrive in a few minutes will change the lives of many.

11.00 a.m.: the verdict

The judges enter, the audience rises.  Then they sit down. Then silence falls. Ousman Sonko is sitting next to the lawyer and his daughter, who is part of his legal team. Behind him are two prison officers. In front, a pocket version of the Koran. The main decision is immediately announced by the President of the Court, Alberto Fabbri: Ousman Sonko is found guilty of crimes against humanity and is sentenced to 20 years in prison, minus the seven he already served in preventive detention.

The main information is also translated into English. Then the judge starts to explain it. A two-hour speech, entirely in German. Impossible to understand what is being said both for Sanna and Mariam, and for the defendant who listens impassively, his gaze dull, perhaps aware that he has to continue his life in a prison in Canton Bern. The language issue was one of the critical points of the entire trial: ‘It was almost all in German and it was very difficult for us Gambian journalists, as well as for the victims and also for the defendant. It is a pity because this case concerns our country and it would have been appropriate for the court to guarantee a translation,’ Sanna tells us.

1 p.m.: reactions

We leave the court and immediately ask for a reaction from the Gambian journalist: ‘It is a good decision, but it will have to be explained in The Gambia why a life sentence was not pronounced.’ The federal prosecution had asked for life imprisonment, but the judges did not consider this to be a ‘particularly serious’ case of crimes against humanity. With this aspect dropped, the maximum sentence under the law is 20 years. Reed Brody is beaming. For the dictator hunter, this is ‘an important step on the long road to justice for the victims of Jammeh.’ The battle is not over: ‘Hopefully the long arm of the law will soon reach Jammeh himself,’ exclaims Brody. The former dictator is for now a refugee in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Cherno Marenah, the Gambian ambassador in Geneva, who came down to Ticino for the occasion, also seems happy: “As representatives of the Gambian government in Switzerland, we are very satisfied that it was a fair and correct trial.

Of a different opinion is lawyer Currat, who emphasised several critical aspects, from the lack of German translation to the detention conditions. Sonko’s lawyer has already announced a probable appeal. Federal Prosecutor Sabrina Beyeler, on the other hand, is beaming, saying that the decision ‘is a further milestone for Swiss justice and important for the Gambian victims who have made considerable efforts to participate in the proceedings and testify.’ Beyond the formal statements, the prosecutor is visibly emotional: for her, it was the case of a lifetime. Fatoumatta Sandeng is also satisfied: ‘I am very happy and relieved. The verdict is very important for us victims,’ she says holding up a poster in memory of her father.

7 p.m.: some peace

Back home, Sanna and Mariam have to write their articles: ‘Before this trial, ordinary Gambians did not hear much about Sonko. But our reports from Bellinzona woke them up and got them interested. Everyone was looking forward to the verdict. And now we have to tell them what happened today,’ Mariam tells us.

For the two journalists, the day was very intense. Not only from a professional point of view. Like other journalists, Sanna Camara has been a victim of the Jammeh regime. He was arrested three times and spent the last years of the dictatorship in exile in Senegal: ‘More than 100 journalists, including myself, fled The Gambia to live in exile. Many others have left their profession for good, which has had a negative impact on independent journalism. Even today we have not recovered from this loss, which has weakened independent information in the country’.

Over a pizza, there is time to relax for a moment. But then it is time to go to bed and put behind us a day that will hopefully mark a turning point in the process against the impunity of dictatorships.

Editor’s Note: this article is originally published in the Lugano-based “Area” newspaper (online version) by journalist Federico Franchini (https://www.areaonline.ch/Diario-di-una-giornata-non-qualunque-1c62f900)

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