The arrest of a former Gambian Interior Minister in Switzerland this week is a test of the reach and limits of international justice, as is the earlier arrest in France of an ex-Prime Minister of Kosovo.
Ousman Sonko, who is being held in Berne for suspected “crimes against humanity” was Interior Minister for 10 years under Gambia’s brutal and capricious former dictator Yahya Jammeh. He was arrested under pressure from Swiss NGO Trial International which filed a criminal case against him for torture. “As Interior Minister of The Gambia from 2006 to 2016, Sonko was head of the police and he was also in charge of detention facilities,” explained Bénédict De Moerloose, head of the Criminal Law and Investigation division at TRIAL International, in an interview with JusticeInfo. “The police have been accused of widespread acts of torture particularly against dissidents, opponents and journalists, so the accusation is torture, either as a direct perpetrator or as an accessory. However, the investigating authorities in the canton of Berne have now re-categorized the alleged crimes as crimes against humanity, which means the case is likely, under Swiss law, to be referred to the federal authorities.” So, without predicting the outcome of the Swiss investigations and whether there will be a trial, the Swiss authorities and civil society represented by Trial have so far played their role.
But what of Yahya Jammeh himself, who is now in exile in Equatorial Guinea? The ex-President, beaten in elections whose results he was refusing to accept and chased from office by the threat of ECOWAS military action, is hoping to escape the justice of men. In a joint statement, ECOWAS, the UN and African Union apparently granted effective impunity to Jammeh and his family. The spokesperson for new Gambian President Adama Barrow has signalled that it is not in Gambians’ interest to delve too deeply into their painful and bloody past. But lawyers and representatives of civil society think that the joint statement is not binding and remind people that former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was finally tried in Africa by Africans, 25 years’ after having found a comfortable refuge in Dakar, Senegal.
One of Yahya Jammeh’s last acts was to pull Gambia out of the International Criminal Court, whose Prosecutor is one of his former Justice Ministers.
France has also stirred up an old case by arresting former Prime Minister of Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj. This former nightclub bouncer was head of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the war with Serbia in 1998. Emerging victorious from the war, he was seen as a hero of the resistance and an ally of the international community that wanted a stable Kosovo. He was also tried and twice acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). But on January 4, 2017, he was arrested at Bâle-Mulhouse airport in France, on the basis of an arrest warrant from Serbia, which wants him extradited. Belgrade, which does not recognize Kosovo and sees Haradinaj as a citizen of Serbia, says it wants to try him for crimes other than those of which he was acquitted. France has 40 days to find a way out of this diplomatic and legal headache.
The Central African Republic (CAR) remains an example of the failures of transitional justice and reconciliation processes. “It is vital that the Central African authorities, with the support of the international community, step up their efforts to end impunity and establish responsibilities, so as to break the cycle of violence and injustice,” Balkissa Ide Siddo, Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said in an interview with JusticeInfo. According to Amnesty International, which recently published a report on the CAR, some people suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity are still “in positions of power or influence” in the country.
Togo reconcilation blocked
Finally, the reconciliation process remains blocked in Togo, where the government is refusing to grant enough funding to the Truth and Justice Commission. “The reason for the impasse,” writes JusticeInfo correspondent Maxime Domagni, “is the fact that most of the violence can be attributed to the regime (or its militia) which has been in power for half a century and which, in order to stay there, often has recourse to violence. And as we have seen in other transition countries in Africa and elsewhere, the reconciliation process in Togo is unlikely to succeed without a change of government.”