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Anger, relief and tears as Gambian ex-minister faces Swiss trial

Some plaintiffs in the case against Gambian ex-minister Ousman Sonko attended the case in person
Some plaintiffs in the case against Gambian ex-minister Ousman Sonko attended the case in person - Copyright NASA/AFP/File -
Some plaintiffs in the case against Gambian ex-minister Ousman Sonko attended the case in person - Copyright NASA/AFP/File -

Alleged victims of Gambia’s former interior minister hailed a landmark day for justice on Monday as Ousman Sonko stood trial on charges of crimes against humanity committed under the regime of ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh.

Sonko, who denies the accusations, appeared at Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court in the southern city of Bellinzona.

“We have been waiting for this day to happen,” former political opponent Demba Dem, one of the plaintiffs, told AFP outside the court.

The trial is taking place under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide regardless of where they were committed.

Sonko is accused by Swiss prosecutors of “having supported, participated in and failed to prevent systematic and generalised attacks as part of the repression carried out by the Gambian security forces against all opponents of the regime”.

The charges span from 2000 to 2016 and include nine counts of crimes against humanity.

He is accused of having “deliberately killed, tortured, raped and unlawfully deprived individuals of their liberty in a serious manner”.

“I want to see those who are accused (of committing) crimes brought to justice,” Demba Dem said.

He said he hoped “justice will be done” and the trial would “serve as a good example to other dictators” and deter atrocities.

– ‘Sick to the stomach’ –

Sonko, who turns 55 on Tuesday, was not expected to address the court during Monday’s opening hearings.

The proceedings are likely to last a month and a verdict is not expected before March. If convicted, Sonko could face life imprisonment.

Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron grip from 1994 to 2016, and Sonko was the West African nation’s interior minister from 2006 to 2016.

There are 10 complainants in the case, according to Trial International, a Geneva-based NGO, including eight “direct victims”.

The complainant parties arrived together at the court, brandishing signs reading: “Bring Jammeh and his accomplices to justice.”

Plaintiff Ramzia Diab, a former lawmaker, said outside court that she was “sick to the stomach”.

“I was shocked to hear his defence lawyer saying that Sonko does not accept that Yahya Jammeh was a dictator,” she told reporters, welling up.

“It’s bringing back all my emotions all over again! Because I was right there. I was tortured. I was molested.”

Fatou Camara, a former opponent, was also attending the trial.

“I didn’t see the dead body of my husband. I don’t know where they buried him,” she told journalists.

– Legal landmark –

Sonko has been in custody since his arrest in Switzerland in January 2017 after applying for asylum following his sacking.

He was detained after a complaint by Trial International.

Following a criminal investigation lasting more than six years, the Swiss attorney general’s office indicted Sonko in April 2023.

Trial International says he is the highest-ranking state official ever to be tried in Europe for international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Alice Autin, of the NGO Human Rights Watch, said the case was “an important step in the search for justice and an end to impunity for everything that took place in The Gambia”.

Sonko is accused of committing the alleged crimes in his roles first within the army, then as inspector general of the police and finally as a government minister.

In 2011, Switzerland enshrined into law the right to judge the most serious crimes alleged to have taken place abroad — provided that the suspect is on Swiss soil.

Sonko’s lawyer Philippe Currat argued Monday that under the principle of non-retroactivity, his client should not be tried for any alleged acts before this date.

“(Sonko) requests you to decide to abandon the proceedings in respect of the acts described in the indictment which are alleged to have taken place before January 1, 2011,” Currat said.

Sonko is also seeking compensation of around 800,000 Swiss francs ($945,000) for his detention in Switzerland.

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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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