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Sonko’s Conviction Emboldens Victims

By Sanna Camara in Switzerland

Musa Saidykhan, a plaintiff in the trial against Ousman Sonko in Switzerland has reacted that the conviction handed by the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland has indeed emboldened victims of the Jammeh regime in their fight for justice.

As former newspaper editor and one of the ten plaintiffs supported by Trial International in pursuing justice in Swiss courts, Mr Saidykahn said that the outcome also send s a message that no matter where one may flee after committing crimes such as Ousman Sonko, the world would not be enough for you a justice will catch up with you one day.

“We are happy that the Swiss government has provided us a platform to pursue justice against Ousman Sonko. Although we hoped for a tougher sentence, we are indeed happy that he got 20 year prison sentence. This is great day for victims of Jammeh and journalists in particular,” he said yesterday after the verdict.

The Criminal Chambers of the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland has found former Gambian Interior Minister Ousman SONKO guilty of various crimes ranging from multiple homicides, false imprisonments and tortures – as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population, thereby imposing a custodial sentence of twenty-year imprisonment effective immediately.

In its judgement of 15 May 2024, the Criminal Chamber finds Ousman SONKO guilty of each of these crimes as a crime against humanity; says it has been proven that Mr Sonko, in complicity with others, had indeed tortured army personnel, politicians and journalists, and falsely imprisoned them in a systematic way over the period he was in authority under Yahya Jammeh.

Journalist DeydanHydara, Madi Ceesay and Musa Saidykhan are among the journalists whose cases have been investigated by the courts in Celle, Germany, and Bellinzona, Switzerland. At the outcome of the trial against Ousman Sonko, the judges in Bellinzona found that Madi Ceesay and Musa Saidykhan got arrested  and during weeks of detention, were subjected to torture by Gambian authorities – at the time under the control of the convicted Interior Minister. Many of the journalists’ colleagues suffered under this pattern of persecution, entire media outlets were closed, their buildings targets of arson. Being a critical journalist in The Gambia under Jammeh, meant to be in constant danger.

Sadibou Marong, Sub Saharan Africa Regional Directror of Paris based media NGO Reporters Sans Frontieres, said: After Germany, Switzerland is now the second state to have investigated crimes against humanity in The Gambia during the Jammeh era. Ousman Sonko and Bai Lowe have been convicted for their contribution to crimes against those Gambians that the dictator Yahya Jammeh believed to be a threat to his power, among them many journalists. These trials under the principle of universal jurisdiction, conducted far from The Gambia and most of the victims, show that accountability is possible, and they point to the next important steps: continuing the quest for justice within The Gambia and holding Jammeh himself accountable.

Ousman SONKO was a close confidant of the former Gambian president Yahya JAMMEH, who led a repressive regime in the Gambia from 1994 to 2016. Under the rule of Yahya JAMMEH, political opponents, journalists and suspected coup plotters, in particular, were routinely tortured, executed extrajudicially, arbitrarily arrested and detained and made to disappear.

“The Criminal Chamber finds that it has been established that in January 2000 in Banjul, Ousman SONKO – in complicity with others – intentionally killed a soldier [Almamo Manneh] suspected of a coup,” the verdict says.

It also finds that Ousman SONKO – in complicity with others – tortured army personnel, politicians and journalists and falsely imprisoned them in connection with a failed coup attempt in March 2006 in Banjul and murdered a former member of parliament [Baba Jobe] in October 2011 in Banjul.

“The Federal Criminal Court’s Criminal Chamber finds that, based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, it is competent to judge – in Switzerland – the crimes committed by the Gambian national Ousman SONKO against the civilian population in the Gambia. Even if some of the charges relate to acts going back to the year 2000, the Criminal Chamber holds that the criminal provisions on crimes against humanity, which entered into force on 1 January 2011, are applicable, given that, at that point in time, the intentional homicides (among them two murders), acts of torture and false imprisonments, were not yet past the statute of limitations,” it stated.

The evidence considered by the Criminal Chamber includes the interrogations of Ousman SONKO as well as numerous statements of witnesses, persons providing information and victims, some of whom travelled to Switzerland while others were examined abroad through mutual legal assistance proceedings. In particular, documents from the Gambia and the final report by the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) were also consulted.

The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland indicted Ousman SONKO of having committed various serious crimes, in the years from 2000 to 2016, in The Gambia, acting in some cases alone, but mostly as a member of a group of perpetrators comprising the then president Yahya JAMMEH and leading members of the security forces and prison services of the Gambia.

“As part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population of the Gambia, Ousman SONKO is alleged to have – in his positions initially as a member of the army of the Gambia, then as Inspector General of the Police and finally as Minister of the Interior – acting in part alone, or in the majority of cases together with the above-mentioned group of perpetrators, deliberately killed, tortured, raped and unlawfully deprived individuals of their liberty in a serious manner,” said the court.

Philip Grant, Director of TRIAL International, said, “Today’s conviction sets a historic precedent in the fight against impunity worldwide. This verdict not only bring justice to the victims of these heinous crimes but also sends a strong signal to high-level perpetrators across the globe, including ministers: justice can catch up with you.”

Ramzia Diab Ghanim, one of the ten plaintiffs in the case, said: “This decision gives us the closure we had been waiting for long and shows that there is no hiding place for anyone who perpetrated international crimes in The Gambia, not even the highest-level individuals. However, I am disappointed that the Court failed to recognize that sexual violence is also an attack against us civilians.”

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