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Former Interior Minister Sonko’s lawyer asks for acquittal, $1m compensation for wrongful detention  

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Swiss Court House

By Mariam Sankanu

BELLINZONA, Switzerland— Philippe Currat, the lawyer representing Gambia’s former interior minister on trial for crimes against humanity committed under the leadership of former president Yahya Jammeh, has asked the Federal Court of Bellinzona to acquit and award him a US$1m compensation for wrongful detention. 

Jammeh ruled Gambia with an iron fist and was accused of numerous human rights violations including murder and severe torture by the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission. Sonko first served in the military, rising through the ranks to command the State Guards, an elite military unit which guards the Gambian presidency, in 2003.

He would serve both as the head of the Gambia police and the interior minister presiding over the internal security matters of the country from 2006 to 2016. 

In 2016, Sonko fell out with Jammeh and fled to Switzerland. He was arrested in Bern in January 2017, a day after the Geneva-based rights organization— Trial International— filed a criminal complaint against him. He was formally indicted by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General before the Federal Criminal Court in April 2023. 

“… Of all the ministers who served during Yahya Jammeh´s presidency, none was ever prosecuted anywhere, neither in The Gambia nor anywhere else, because everyone knows that the responsibility does not lie there, but with the Junglers and the NIA, who were only answerable to the president and no one else,” argued Currat. 

Sonko faces charges of murder, rape, false imprisonment, and torture brought against him by the Swiss authorities and ten Gambian plaintiffs in a trial which began on January 8, 2024. 

‘Life imprisonment’

The hearing of pleadings from the prosecutors and the defense in the Sonko trial began on March 4 and it is expected to end on the 11. In their six hours of submission on Monday, the Swiss prosecutors, citing the Bai Lowe verdict in Germany, have asked the court to sentence Sonko to life imprisonment. 

“In December last year, the Jungler Bai Lowe, who was involved in various crimes against humanity as a driver,  was sentenced to life imprisonment. The defendant´s involvement in the offence and his culpability must be weighed significantly higher in this case,” argued the Swiss prosecutors. 

“Taking all sentencing criteria into account, the Office of the Attorney General therefore requests that the accused be sentenced to life imprisonment.”

Most of the crimes Sonko is charged with were committed in participation with others. The only two exceptions were the murder of former State Guards soldier Almamo Manneh allegedly killed during a military operation he led and the alleged multiple rape of Binta Jamba, a widow of Manneh, from 2000 to 2005. 

In the course of the 13-day hearing in January, some witnesses have accused the former minister of participating in the panels of investigation that authorise and oversaw torture of detainees and rape of at least one. 

Sonko denied any wrongdoing. 

“Something became increasingly clear towards the end of the criminal investigation: there seemed to be two faces of Ousman Sonko,” argued the Swiss prosecutors. 

“One face shows an intelligent, attentive, courteous and cooperative suspect who knows of no wrongdoing and has never been guilty of anything. The other face shows a person who was aware of everything from A to Z, who knew about the systematic human rights violations and helped orchestrate them at the highest level, a “mastermind”, a cool, considered planner and strategist, someone without scruples, who was selfish, ambitious, an alpha animal, a person of power who wants to control the situation at all times and hold all the strings.”

Meanwhile, the pleadings were strictly made in German without translation. The Gambian journalists who travelled to Bellinzona were forced to rely on online translation tools to follow the hearings. Sonko’s lawyer also complained that his client could not follow the proceedings because of the language barrier.

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