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How Gambia’s truth commission findings shaped the Sonko trial

The trial of Ousman Sonko, former Interior minister of The Gambia, resumes today in Switzerland. Parties are expected to present their closing arguments. A striking fact of the evidence put before the Swiss court last January was how much of it was first investigated and exposed by the Gambian truth commission between 2018 and 2020. But there are a few takeaways from the Swiss trial.

Hearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of The Gambia (TRRC)
The Truth Commission's investigations and hearings in Gambia provided the bulk of the evidence used in Ousman Sonko's trial before the Swiss courts. © Jason Florio / Fondation Hirondelle
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During its two and half years of public hearings, The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) investigated a vast range of human rights violations and abuses that occurred from July 1994 to January 2017 under the regime of Yahya Jammeh. An impressive amount of new evidence was disclosed, and spectacular testimonies kept the country riveted to the proceedings.

In January this year, Ousman Sonko, a former head of police and Interior minister under Jammeh faced victims of crimes that allegedly took place from 2000 to 2016. Sonko is tried before the Federal Tribunal of Bellinzona, Switzerland, for allegedly participating in the murder of soldier Almamo Manneh and the multiple rape of his wife Binta Jamba; his role in the murder of prominent politician and businessman Baba Jobe; the victimisation of the opposition United Democratic Party protesters in April 2016; and the victimisation of alleged participants in a coup in March 2006, as well as two other journalists during that period.

These cases were also investigated by the Gambia’s TRRC. Before the commission, a number of witnesses mentioned Sonko’s role in the crimes. They are the same witnesses who were heard in Bellinzona. Out of 11 witnesses heard before the Swiss Federal Tribunal,      eight are actually private plaintiffs in the Swiss case. Nine – Bunja Darboe, Demba Dem, Binta Jamba, Madi Ceesay, Musa Saidykhan, Nogoi Njie (now deceased), Fatoumatta Jawara, Fatou Camara and Fatoumatta Sandeng – had publicly testified before the TRRC. The others had not but they had provided off-hearings evidence to the commission.

A pool of witnesses to tap

During the trial, findings from the TRRC’s investigations, including witness testimonies, were cited many times. The defendant himself seemed to have heavily relied on these testimonies, except of course when they implicated him directly. “The TRRC is a truth-seeking process not an investigation,” Sonko would say, when confronted with evidence that incriminated him.

“It’s quite clear that these universal jurisdiction cases [trials that are held outside The Gambia] are relying extensively on the TRRC evidence to build their own cases,” said Essa Faal, the former lead counsel of the truth commission. “The evidence presented at the TRRC gives them a plausible case hypothesis, pool of witnesses to tap, an already judicially scrutinized and accepted narrative and also confessions from co-perpetrators. With this it is easy for these countries to construct viable cases in accordance with [their] laws. Without the TRRC evidence it would take years and lots of resources to build cases against the suspects. Often time it’s almost impossible for such cases to succeed because it is difficult to gather evidence without credible leads.”

Essa Faal, former lead counsel at the Gambian truth commission (TRRC)
Essa Faal, former lead counsel at the Gambian truth commission: "I am certain that these universal jurisdiction cases can potentially shame our government and put them under pressure to ensure accountability for past atrocities as recommended by the TRRC.” © Jason Florio / Fondation Hirondelle

New evidence

Although a large chunk of evidence before the court in Bellinzona matches the TRRC’s findings, or even relied on them, some new evidence emerged. First and foremost, Sonko had never responded to the allegations made before the Commission. He was arrested in January 2017 in Switzerland where he was seeking asylum. The truth commission began its investigations the following year, and Sonko was never heard.

In Bellinzona, the accused could meet with his alleged victims, and respond to all the allegations against him. He rejected the indictment “in its entirety”. But victims’ lawyers argue that his testimony may have also helped their case. “The Court’s questioning led him to contradict himself on several aspects as well as, in particular, to admit that he had been the one writing the notes that were found in his personal belongings at the moment of his arrest where it is stated that he had received an order from Jammeh to 'shoot and kill' the demonstrators in April 2016,” said Benoit Meystre, a lawyer at TRIAL International, a Swiss NGO that initiated the case against Sonko in Switzerland and is assisting the plaintiffs.

The Office of the Attorney General’s in Switzerland (OAG) said they could not comment. “The OAG will present the case and comment the evidences (including the TRRC reports) in the hearing,” said Matteo Cremaschi, the spokesperson.

It was also the first time that Lamin Sanneh, the prison officer who was guarding former Member of parliament and close ally of Jammeh, Baba Jobe the day he was killed by the regime’s death squad, publicly testified on the incident. He had only submitted a written statement to the TRRC. A rape victim also testified in Switzerland while her testimony was protected before the TRRC. Evidence at trial also indicated that more women were victims of sexual assault than was publicly admitted before the commission.

“The TRRC findings support the demonstration that massive and targeted repression took place in the country. However, in the Sonko case, it was not sufficient for the prosecutor to charge Sonko of such crimes,” said Meystre. “Other investigations were conducted, such as the hearing and cross examination of dozens of witnesses and the input of several NGO reports supporting the charges. Other evidence was also necessary for the prosecutor to indict him for specific crimes in which he has allegedly played a role. In other words, the TRRC findings are useful to prove the context of violence while other evidence was necessary for the prosecutor to demonstrate Sonko’s role – meaning the specific crimes he is suspected of having committed or participated in - within this violent context.”

Putting pressure back home

Last year, a Jungler (member of Jammeh’s hit-squad), Bai Lowe, was handed life imprisonment in Germany for his participation in human rights violations and abuses during the regime of Jammeh. Sonko is the second Gambian to be tried abroad for Jammeh-era crimes. Interestingly, in the case of Sonko, except for the allegation of rape, all the other crimes he has been indicted for were allegedly committed with other individuals, mostly high-ranking.

One of them is Lang Tombong Tamba, former Chief of the Defense staff in The Gambia.

Part of the evidence against Sonko is his participation in an investigation panel that oversaw the alleged victimisation of individuals accused of participating in a coup in March 2006. Several witnesses mentioned Lang Tombong Tamba as a member of that panel. Tamba himself would also later be victimised for allegedly participating in a coup. His testimony before the Gambia’s truth commission was an intense one, stretching on for three days. Yet, despite allegations against him, he is currently a deputy ambassador to Russia. Another person adversely mentioned is Sonko’s subordinate police officer at the time, Boto Keita, who is still actively serving in the country’s security sector. And there are more.

To date, no perpetrator has yet been tried in The Gambia for crimes committed under Yahya Jammeh’s regime with the exception of former Junta member Yankuba Touray and several members of the National Intelligence Agency. Last year, Gambia’s Justice minister said domestic prosecutions would commence in November 2024.

“It is undesirable that a foreign country would seriously and diligently prosecute serious crimes committed in The Gambia when most of the co-perpetrators of that crime walk freely in total impunity in the country,” Essa told Justice Info. “This questions our values and commitment to the ideals of a just society that is anchored on the rule of law. I am certain that these universal jurisdiction cases can potentially shame our government and put them under pressure to ensure accountability for past atrocities as recommended by the TRRC.” The Ministry of Justice special adviser on transitional justice Ida Persson said they could not respond to our questions in time for publication.

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