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Gambian prison officers testify in crimes against humanity trial of former interior minister in Switzerland

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By Mustapha K Darboe with New Narratives

Bellinzona, Switzerland- Two Gambian prison officers—Lamin Sanneh and Abdou Jammeh—testified to torture, and poor food and hygiene conditions at Gambia’s central prison— Mile 2—in the crimes against humanity trial of Gambia’s former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko in the Swiss city of Bellinzona. 

Sonko served as police chief under ex-President Yahya Jammeh from 2005 to 2006. In the latter part of 2006, he was appointed minister of interior, a position he held from November 2006 to February 2012 and from May 2012 to September 2016. 

Arrested in January 2017, the Swiss Attorney General’s office, along with 10 plaintiffs from Gambia, is accusing Sonko of torture, murder, false imprisonment, rape, and deprivation of liberty, allegedly perpetrated against Gambians during the 22-year rule of Gambia’s former dictator Jammeh. 

The Swiss prosecutors are trying to prove Sonko’s responsibility for torture through his participation in various investigation panels as inspector general or for ordering or abetting abuse as interior minister. 

Previous testimonies before the court alleged that Sonko served on the investigation panel following the 2006 foiled coup, which oversaw the torture and interrogation of witnesses by Junglers–a paramilitary hit squad operating under the orders of Jammeh.

Today, the trial’s fifth witness, Lamin Sanneh, a prison officer, told the 3-member panel of judges that in 2012 torture was widespread in Mile 2, the country’s central prison Jammeh popularly called his “five-star” hotel. 

“Most of the time, the Junglers come there and take inmates to the [National Intelligence Agency], and when they return them, you know that these inmates have gone through something,” said Sanneh. “Some inmates are tortured while they are being taken away. I experienced that also. It is very terrible,” he said.

Ousman’s knowledge of abuse 

Sanneh was the personal bodyguard of David Colley, the longtime former director of Gambia’s Prison Services, the institution overseeing Gambian prisons, including Mile 2. 

Sonko denied wrongdoing and argued that he neither exercised administrative nor operational oversight over the prisons. Sonko said that the Security Wing of Mile 2—a barely 2-meter square cell with a face-size window tucked near the roof, was often under the control of the military.  

“David Colley has operational and administrative responsibility over prison services and all the prisons in the Gambia. As such, he does not need instructions from me,” said Sonko in the Monday hearings before the Swiss court. However, Sanneh testified that Sonko and Colley enjoyed a close working relationship and that he had full knowledge of events in the prisons, including Mile 2. 

“Whatever happens at the prison, the director [David Colley] will feed [Sonko],” with information, said Sanneh. 

“I know the Director will not do anything without the notice of the Minister. Anything going on in the prison, he has to inform him.” Abdou Jammeh, another prison officer who was arrested in 2016 and held without charge for 9 months, shared a similar testimony. 

Murder of Baba Jobe 

Among the series of allegations Sonko is battling in Switzerland is his alleged involvement in the 2012 murder of Baba Jobe, the former majority leader of Jammeh’s APRC’s party. 

Jobe was sentenced to a nine–year jail term in 2004 on charges of economic crimes. Barely a year before he was due to be released, Junglers allegedly walked into his room and suffocated him with a pillow, Omar Jallow, a Jungler, testified before the Truth Commission in 2019. 

That day, Sanneh said he was asked to guard Colley, who was in the hospital then. Colley informed him that military officials were coming for Jobe, and when they came, he should grant them access, he told the court. 

In 2018, David Colley told Swiss prosecutors that he got a call from Sonko to grant Jungler Nuha Badgie access to Jobe. Sonko contested Colley’s claim and denied any involvement in the planning and execution of Jobe. 

The trial is expected to last until January 30 but the verdict will likely be announced in March. If found guilty, Sonko could face up to 20 years in prison. 

This was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

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