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Former Interior Minister Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Crimes Against Humanity

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Former Interior Minister, Ousman Sonko.

By Buba Gagigo 

Ousman Sonko, the former Interior Minister of the Gambia, has been handed a 20-year prison sentence by a Swiss court for crimes against humanity.

Sonko, aged 55, sought asylum in Switzerland after being ousted from his ministerial role in the Gambia in September 2016. His asylum request on November 10, 2016, followed a criminal complaint lodged by an NGO accusing him of crimes against humanity, including torture. He was subsequently detained in Switzerland on January 26, 2017.

“The Criminal Chamber of the Federal Criminal Court convicts the former Gambian Minister of the Interior for crimes against humanity. The Federal Criminal Court’s Criminal Chamber has found Ousman SONKO guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to a prison term of 20 years. As the former interior minister of the Gambia, Ousman SONKO, on his level of hierarchy, is the most senior state official to be put before a court and convicted based on universal jurisdiction,” The Swiss Federal Criminal Court said.

The court’s verdict was based on a comprehensive examination of evidence, including Sonko’s interrogations, witness testimonies, and information from victims. Sonko’s atrocities spanned from complicity in political murders and torture to orchestrating unlawful imprisonments, notably during Jammeh’s repressive regime from 1994 to 2016.

“In particular, documents from the Gambia and the final report by the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) were also consulted. In its judgement of 15 May 2024, the Criminal Chamber finds Ousman SONKO guilty of multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment, each as a crime against humanity. 

“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 court said.

One notable incident cited in the court’s findings was Sonko’s involvement in the killing of a suspected coup plotter in 2000. Additionally, Sonko was implicated in the torture and murder of political opponents, journalists, and activists, including a former member of parliament, in 2011.

While some charges, such as rape as a crime against humanity, were dropped due to a lack of evidence, Sonko’s egregious actions were deemed part of a systematic assault on the Gambian civilian population.

“It also finds that it has been proven that – in complicity with others – he 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 in October 2011 in Banjul. According to the Criminal Chamber, it is further established that Ousman SONKO – in complicity with others – tortured several opposition members in connection with a political rally in April 2016 in Banjul, where one of the organizers of the rally was killed in the torture acts,” the court said.

The swiss court also said the torture of the opposition members continued thereafter as they were held under ‘inhumane’ detention conditions. 

“The Criminal Chambers concludes that Ousman SONKO committed these crimes—the homicides, false imprisonments and tortures – as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population,” they explained.

Despite the severity of the charges, some accusations, such as rape as a crime against humanity, were not pursued due to insufficient evidence of a systematic attack against civilians. However, the court’s verdict ensures that justice is served, combining the 20-year prison term with a 12-year judicial expulsion from Switzerland and compensation for the victims.

“In this regard, the Criminal Chamber cannot establish an attack against the civilian population, which means Switzerland does not have criminal jurisdiction. The Criminal Chamber does not find this to be a particularly serious case of crimes against humanity. Likewise, it does not see it as a less serious case.  

“The Criminal Chamber sentences Ousman SONKO to a prison term of 20 years. The time he has already served in detention for several years now will be taken into account. The statutory maximum penalty is a custodial sentence of 20 years. When determining the sentence, it appeared that the accumulated convictions would have theoretically led to a sentence corresponding to its multiple,” they explained.

According to court, the Criminal Chamber combines the custodial sentence with a 12-year judicial expulsion of Ousman SONKO from Switzerland. 

“He is obliged to pay the private claimants compensation for the non-material pain and suffering they sustained. This judgement has not become effective yet,” they stated.

Here is some brief background information provided by the Swiss Federal Court:

“The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland accused 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.  

“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 traveled to Switzerland while others were examined abroad through mutual legal assistance proceedings.”

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