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Fatoumatta Sandeng: “Indictment of Ousman Sonko Reinforces The Victims’ Hope”

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Fatoumatta Sandeng, daughter of the late Solo Sandeng.

By Landing Ceesay 

Fatoumatta Sandeng, the daughter of the late Ebrima Solo Sandeng, via TRIAL International, stated that the indictment of Ousman Sonko, former Gambian Interior Minister in Switzerland reinforces the victims’ hope. 

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of Switzerland has yesterday indicted Ousman Sonko, former Gambian Minister of Interior, for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the rule of former Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh. 

In a press release, TRIAL International said the upcoming trial of Ousman Sonko is a crucial milestone for the transitional justice process in The Gambia, which has started to deal with the past atrocities committed in the two decades of Jammeh’s “dictatorship.”

“This is also a landmark case for Switzerland, as it is only the second universal jurisdiction case to be tried by the Federal Criminal Court (FCC). The case is equally important since such a high-ranking individual has never been tried in Europe on the basis of universal jurisdiction,” TRIAL International said in a statement. 

Ousman Sonko will be tried before the FCC in Bellinzona at a date yet to be determined. He is accused by the Swiss prosecuting authorities of the killing of a perceived political opponent in 2000, of acts of sexual violence committed between 2000 and 2002 as well as in 2005, of having participated in acts of torture (including physical assault and sexual violence) and deprivation of liberty committed against individuals who were suspected of having plotted a coup in March 2006 as well as of the murder of a politician in 2011.

The Swiss authorities also accuse Ousman Sonko of having co-perpetrated deprivation of liberty and acts of torture – which led to the death of Solo Sandeng, one of the leading figures of the opposition party (United Democratic Party – UDP) – of peaceful demonstrators in 2016, when he was Minister of the Interior. 

These acts have been qualified by the Swiss prosecutor as crimes against humanity.

According to Fatoumatta Sandeng, daughter of the late Solo Sandeng: “victims of human rights violations under the Jammeh regime yearn to see justice done. The indictment of Ousman Sonko reinforces the victims’ hope to see their perpetrators held accountable for inflicting heart aching pains on them and their families”.

The indictment comes more than six years after Sonko’s arrest on 26 January 2017, one day after TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint against him. 

“Quickly, an investigation for crimes against humanity was opened and Ousman Sonko was placed in pre-trial detention. Between 2017 and April 2023, the prosecuting authorities auditioned the accused numerous times, the 10 plaintiffs as well as dozens of witnesses. They also travelled to The Gambia to investigate on site,” TRIAL International said. 

In January 2017, the country’s President Yahya Jammeh was ousted from power, thus putting an end to a reign marked by widespread human rights violations.

During the 22-year authoritarian government, political opponents, journalists, human rights activists as well as any real or perceived threat to the government were systematically targeted with torture including rape, arbitrary detention, killings and enforced disappearances.

Ousman Sonko, former State guard commander, then Inspector General of Police until 2006 and later Minister of Interior until 2016, was an essential figure in this system of repression and one of Jammeh’s closest allies.

Two criminal procedures are currently ongoing against alleged Jammeh’s henchmen in Germany and the United States, but Ousman Sonko is to date the highest-ranking individual having to answer for atrocities committed in the country.

“While welcomed efforts have been deployed to address past violations, especially through the work of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), only two criminal trials have so far taken place in The Gambia respectively in September 2021 and July 2022,” TRIAL International said in a statement. 

According to Musa Saidykhan, one of the victims of the March 2006 events: “a lot has been done in The Gambia since 2017, but a lot still needs to be done, particularly when it comes to the implementation of the TRRC recommendations. Without enforcement of justice in my country, there will be no room for forgiveness”.

25 January 2017: TRIAL International files a criminal complaint before the prosecuting authorities of the Canton of Bern after Ousman Sonko is reported to be on Swiss soil.

26 January 2017: Ousman Sonko is arrested in Bern and the prosecuting authorities open an investigation against him for crimes against humanity.

28 January 2017: A court confirms his pre-trial detention.

6 February 2017: The OAG takes jurisdiction over the case.

6 April, 1 and 13 June, 27 October 2017: Seven victims file complaints before the OAG, with the support of TRIAL International.

13 March and 6 July 2018: Two additional victims file complaints before the OAG, with the support of TRIAL International.

2017 to 2021: Ousman Sonko, the plaintiffs and dozens of witnesses are heard as part of the investigation. Switzerland requests mutual legal assistance from The Gambia, and Swiss authorities travel to investigate on site.

12 April 2022: An additional victim files a complaint before the OAG. There are now 10 victims involved as parties in the proceedings.

1 September 2022: The final day of the last hearing of Ousman Sonko takes place.

17 April 2023: The OAG filed its indictment against Ousman Sonko for crimes against humanity committed in The Gambia and refers the case to the FCC. Sonko remains in pre-trial detention until trial.

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