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Today is D-Day For Ousman Sonko

BY Sanna Camara in Switzerland

The Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland, sitting in the Ticino region of Bellinzona, will today pass the verdict on the seven years’ case of former Gambian Interior Minister under Yahya Jammeh, Mr Ousman Sonko.

Swiss authorities have indicted Mr Sonko of being a key player in the systematic use of torture, rape, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances that characterized the 22 year’s rule of former Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh.

Swiss based human rights NGO dedicated to fighting against impunity, TRIAL International, in 2017 filed a complaint against Ousman Sonko when he fled The Gambia to Europe, seeking asylum in Sweden but later referred to Switzerland, under whose visa he traveled to Europe. The office of the Attorney General of Switzerland and the Federal Police raided Sonko’s residence and placed him under arrest, leading to probes into nature and gravity of crimes alleged by the human rights lawyers of TRIAL International.

“For seven years, I have experienced hatred, contempt and lies from your criminal prosecution authorities. After seven years in pre-trial detention in Switzerland, I have the impression that your judicial system is based on arbitrariness, and systematically condemns foreigners. You have let me express myself to you more than at any time in the last seven years, but I don’t know if you have heard me,” Sonko had told the Federal Criminal Court in March when he delivered his last address.

Since 2017, the federal prosecuting authorities in Switzerland have thoroughly investigated “the contextual situation” of the alleged crimes under Jammeh. They had identified several offenses through these investigations, including dozens of hearings (of witness, plaintiffs, investigation in The Gambia and in Switzerland) which identified roles allegedly played by Ousman Sonko between 2000 and 2016.

Sonko however, says his prosecution was political, and tried his best to convince the court that the testimonies and evidence presented by the prosecution against him were exaggerated. His defense lawyer, Mr Phillipe Currat, accused TRIAL International of pushing the agenda “to bring Jammeh to justice” through Sonko’s case.

“Ousman Sonko is only a means to this end,” Currat had argued in his closing arguments in March.

Public prosecutor, Sabrina Beyeler, said the defense’s approach to “politicize the proceedings” since the beginning of the trial, was meant to divert attention to real crimes that Sonko committed against Gambians.

“The trial is not political,” Beyeler stressed. “The only person who makes it a political issue is the accused. It is arrogant, presumptuous, and defamatory to suggest that a non-governmental organization, acting as a whistleblower, and that the courts in Switzerland, would waive the trial through with a conviction for nothing, [but] so that the criminal proceedings against Yahya Jammeh could be conducted as the ultimate goal.”

She went on: “What a blind person can see but the defendant refuses to admit is that he was one of the central figures in the state apparatus of Jammeh’s regime of torture and terror.”

Annina Mullis, the lawyer representing Binta Jamba, wife of late State Guards No. 2, Captain Almamo Manneh, who was killed by Ousman Sonko for alleged coup plot against Jammeh, snapped that the defense’s speculations about Jamba’s motivations for falsely accusing Sonko, were not plausible. Jamba also accused Sonko of multiple rapes at the hands of Ousman Sonko after the death of her husband.

Mullis also represents Madi Ceesay and Musa Saidykhan – two journalists working for The Independent newspaper, and also executive members of the Gambia Press Union, arrested, tortured in March 2006.

“I would like to vehemently reject the claim that my clients themselves said that they were not persecuted and tortured as journalists… In court, both stated that they had been arrested and tortured in connection with their journalistic work – both also stated that their position within the Gambian Press Union had an influence at the time of their arrest,” she told the court.

Caroline Renold, a lawyer for Bunja Darboe, Demba Dem and Ramzia Diab, refuted the defense’s statement that the victims are not part of the civilian population because they were coup plotters.

“This element alone shows that the 2006 repression was an attack against the civilian population and not a criminal case against coup plotters,” she further argued.

At the verge of the verdict, TRIAL International – with the plaintiffs – expects that the court will recognize the massive and systematic violence that occurred in The Gambia under Jammeh and moreover, the role of Ousman Sonko in this context, both as an active participant in the commission of the worst crimes and/or as the one who gave key orders for their perpetration or even allowed them to take place.

Aged 55, Ousman Sonko joined Gambian military in 1988. He was commander of the Sates Guards in 2003 directly in charge of Yahya Jammeh’s security. Sonko was elevated to the position of Inspector General of Police at time of worst crimes against journalists, such as the killing of Deyda Hydara, was being investigated by the Police. He replaced Landing 13 Badjie as IGP in 2005, and would become Interior Minister in 2006, after the coup attempt by then Army Chief of Staff, Lt Col. Ndour Cham – a position he maintained until 2016, in-charge of internal security of the country, including the prisons and the immigration departments, besides the Gambia Police Force. He was removed as interior minister in September 2016, few months to the end of Yahya Jammeh’s regime.

The federal Prosecutors in Switzerland had asked the court to impose life imprisonment as the highest punishment against Ousman Sonko.  According to Swiss criminal law, the minimum sentence for crimes against humanity is five years in prison, while the maximum, in case of aggravated crimes against humanity, is life imprisonment. If convicted to life, early release could take place at the earliest after 15 years, from which the seven years of pre-trial detention will be deducted, legal experts in Switzerland say.

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