Ousman Sonko gets maximum punishment

The trial against former Interior minister of The Gambia, Ousman Sonko, came to a wrap on May 15. The Swiss Federal Court of Bellinzona handed him a 20-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity. This is the highest sentence that can be given under Swiss law. Whilst lawyers of plaintiffs and activists described this as a success, they were disappointed that Sonko escaped some charges.

Sonko trial in Switzerland: former Gambian Interior Minister Ousman Sonko found guilty of crimes against humanity, including the murder of Solo Sandeng. Photo: Fatoumata Sandeng, daughter of Ousman Solo Sandeng, holds a sign reading “I am Solo”.
Fatoumata Sandeng, the daughter of Ousman Solo Sandeng, an opposition leader who was killed during the 2016 protest in The Gambia, is standing in front of the Swiss court in Bellinzona on May 15, after former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko was found guilty of crimes against humanity, including the murder of Solo Sandeng. Photo: © Mariam Sankanu / Justice Info
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It was a rainy Wednesday, a weather not common for Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, at this time of the year. Ousman Sonko was back in the Swiss Federal Court in Bellinzona. But this time, to know his fate. More people, including Swiss journalists, were present, a crowd not seen in the previous phases of the trial of the former Interior minister of the Gambia, that opened early January this year. Parties anxiously waited outside, none able to say with certainty what the outcome of the case would be.

“I have done the job. It is no longer in my hands,” said Phillippe Currat, Sonko’s lawyer. “I don’t know what to expect. We don’t have a precedent for this case. It’s the first time we are trying the minister of another country, so I don’t know.” The defence team and the accused family were almost complete. Sonko’s daughter, a UK-based lawyer, was back at her seat on the defence bench, and his ex-wife, Njemeh Bah, was also present. Their son was expected to be here for the verdict, his lawyer said, but he could not get permission from school in time.

Sonko took his seat again, after sharing pleasantries with the Deputy Permanent Representative of The Gambia Mission in Geneva, Cherno Marenah. This time, he was wearing eyeglasses. He had an Islamic book, which he was reading when the three panel judges walked in. Even after the verdict was announced, he kept a straight face, with an expression that was hard to read, eyes fixated on the judges as the president of the court read out the judgement in German.

The verdict

Sonko was found guilty on multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of false imprisonment and multiple counts of torture as crimes against humanity, for acts that took place while he served the dictatorship of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh (1994-2017). Sonko had been one of the longest serving government officials in the Jammeh regime. He has been sentenced to 20 years, the highest under Swiss law, and an expulsion from the country for a duration of 12 years.

Sonko has been in jail in Switzerland since January 2017. “The time served in police, pre-trial and preventive detention before the date of judgement of a total of 2667 days will be taken into account in the execution of the sentence,” said the court. According to the presiding judge, cumulatively, Sonko would have spent 75 years and 4 months in prison (with Baba Jobe’s murder carrying the highest single sentence of 15 years). But according to Swiss law, 20 years is the maximum sentence.

The president of the court further said that the accused did not show remorse and was not interested in clarifying issues. He criticized the accused’s “obstructive behaviour.” Sonko was also ordered to pay compensation to the plaintiffs and to the Swiss Confederation for the expenses incurred in this trial. This would amount to 3.9 million US dollars. Already, 14,413.30 Swiss francs (16,000 USD) that was forfeited from Sonko has been allocated      to claimants to cover civil claims.

“A powerful precedent”

“The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but this verdict is a clear indication that they do turn, and in due time all those responsible for such crimes will be held accountable. It’s a powerful precedent for accountability, regardless of one's position or location. The implications resonate far beyond this case, signalling to perpetrators worldwide that justice will eventually catch up with them,” said Isatou Jammeh, a Gambian human rights activist. “I think it will boost the chances that other prosecutions will go ahead in The Gambia but also in other parts of the world. So it's a good day for justice today,” concurred Philip Grant, director of Trial International, the Swiss NGO that initiated the case against Sonko.

“The conviction of Ousman Sonko, one of the pillars of Yahya Jammeh’s brutal regime, is a major step on the long road to justice for Jammeh’s victims,” said in Bellinzona American human rights lawyer Reed Brody, who has spearheaded a campaign to have Jammeh extradited from Equatorial Guinea, where he took asylum after his demise, and be brought to justice. Brody said the trial “shows the challenges of judges sitting thousands of miles from where the crimes happened or allegedly happened, when most of the evidence, in fact all of the evidence is based on witness testimony, and there are very few corroborating documents”. But he stressed that the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) – which worked over three years to investigate crimes committed under Jammeh’s regime – “did a really important job at setting the context. The Swiss authorities did their best and the witnesses were very compelling.”

A fall for victims of sexual violence

Sonko was not convicted for all the crimes he was prosecuted. The court dismissed the rape charges on legal grounds, saying the rape cases alleged against Sonko did not show any connection to a systematic attack against a civilian population and therefore could not fall under the definition of a crime against humanity. It viewed them as isolated incidents.

“We are very disappointed to see that the court has decided to discontinue the case concerning the sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) related charges. While it is important to highlight that the defendant was not acquitted but procedural reasons have led the judges to this conclusion, the decision is nonetheless another example for the widespread disregard of SGBV. Rather than acknowledging structural and systematic aspects of SGBV in The Gambia during the rule of Yahya Jammeh, the court deems the charges brought by my client against the defendant as isolated acts outside the scope of crimes against humanity–a position we strongly disagree with,” said Anninna Mullis, the lawyer of Binta Jamba, who accused Sonko of raping her multiple times following the death of her husband, Almamo Manneh (whose murder Sonko was convicted for).

“If Ousman Sonko is not convicted of sexual violence after all the evidence from the TRRC where he’s named and mentioned, then it’s really concerning,” said Fatou Baldeh, founder and chief executive director of Women in Liberation and Leadership (WILL), a Gambian NGO. “But also, I think this would really hold women back, women victims of sexual violence as we move forward with prosecutions of other perpetrators.”

A likely appeal

The judgement was nevertheless a blow for the defence. “I don’t think that’s a fair trial because if you are having a trial, there should be witnesses from both sides. It seems like all the witnesses were there just for the victims. There were no witnesses on our side. So I don’t really get how that works,” said Sonko’s daughter, who is part of her father’s legal team. Currat said he was disappointed that the court rejected his client’s request to investigate his “unlawful” prison conditions, after he spent 7 years in pre-trial detention. He confirmed that an appeal was quite likely.

Sadibou Badjie, a supporter of former president Jammeh, said this verdict was shocking. “I have not discussed it with anyone yet,” he said on the phone, referring to the people of Foni, Jammeh’s hometown, “but I am sure none will be pleased with this news of [Sonko’s] jailing.”

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