When Ousmane Sonko, variously described as ‘the most brutal’ former Interior Minister in the administration of exiled Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh, stood in the dock in a Swiss court on January 8, 2024, the victims of the atrocity crimes he is accused of committing found themselves grappling with both anxiety and a sense of relief.
“I will be following the trial very keenly,” said Muhammed Sandeng, 26, whose father, Solo Sandeng, was tortured to death in 2016 for leading an opposition protest to demand electoral reforms. Sonko, as the Interior Minister at the time, was in charge of the police.
“I have looked forward to the day when the perpetrators will face justice for what they have done,” he added. “It brings me fulfilment as a son and an activist for the years of fighting to get here.”
The opening of the trial would be “an emotional rollercoaster”, Muhammed, who was only 19 years old when his father was killed, was admitted. “It will bring back memories, not just for us, but for many other families he victimised and many others who are still waiting for such a day,” he told Journalists For Justice (JFJ).
Who’s Ousman Sonko
Former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, currently exiled in Equatorial Guinea, ruled the tiny West African country for 22 years, from 1994 to 2017. He left power after losing in a December 2016 election whose results he rejected. His reign was characterised by human rights violations.
Under his successor, Adama Barrow, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) was initiated to investigate allegations of human rights violations committed by the former regime.
The inquiry revealed systematic and widespread violations, including extrajudicial and mass killings, torture, and sexual violence. The victims include not only Jammeh’s political opponents but also business allies and family members he fell out with, and even ordinary citizens.
Ousmane Sonko, a former military man, was not just a long-standing member of Jammeh’s inner circle; he is believed to be one of the key individuals who received direct orders from Jammeh. He served as the commander of the presidential guards in the early 2000s. This elite group, nicknamed the “Junglers”, has been accused of carrying out some of the killings.
In 2005, he was appointed Inspector General of the police. That year, more than 50 West African migrants, mainly Ghanaians, were arrested and killed by the Junglers. The police orchestrated an elaborate coverup of the mass killings.
Barely a year later, Sonko was elevated to the position of Minister for Interior, a position he held until February 2012 and from May 2012 to September 2016, making him one of the longest-serving ministers in Jammeh’s administration.
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The alleged crimes
Sonko was dismissed just three months before the 2016 presidential elections, which Jammeh lost, and five months after the state crackdown on the April protests, during which opposition activist Solo Sandeng was arrested and tortured to death. The fallout between Jammeh and Sonko came as a surprise to many. Some reports claimed that the president, who was under intense international pressure because of his administration’s increasingly violent reprisals against his political opponents, had planned to throw him under the bus.
The former minister first fled to Sweden, where his asylum application was rejected. He later moved to Switzerland where, in January 2017, he was arrested after Trial International filed a complaint against him for his role in the atrocity crimes in The Gambia.
And now, seven years later, Sonko has appeared in court for the start of a trial that is expected to last three weeks. He faces charges of crimes against humanity including torture, kidnapping, sexual violence, and unlawful killings. The crimes were allegedly committed between 2000 and 2016, when he operated as a key figure in the Jammeh administration – as commander of the presidential guard, head of the police, and Interior Minister.
According to the particulars of the indictment, Sonko is alleged to have orchestrated the plot to eliminate Almamo Manneh in January 2000, when he was the deputy commander of the presidential guards. Manneh, an elite presidential guard, was shot to death on allegations that he had planned to overthrow Jammeh. Sonko leaked a recording of Manneh’s alleged coup plotting, lured him into an ambush, and watched as he was sprayed with bullets. He didn’t stop there. He allegedly went after Manneh’s wife, Binta Jamba, and repeatedly sexually abused her. She testified at the TRRC hearings that “he raped me 60 times.”
Sonko is also accused of involvement in the murder of Baba Jobe on October 28, 2011. Jobe was once an influential political figure and a close associate of President Jammeh before falling out with him in 2003. He was set to be released from prison after serving nine years allegedly for committing economic crimes but suddenly fell ill and was admitted to hospital. He was taken to the private ward at the state-run Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital in Banjul. On the fateful night, the prison guards were told to make way for people who were paying him a visit. Several members of Jammeh’s death squad testified at the TRRC hearings how they found Jobe sleeping in his hospital bed and suffocated him using a pillow. Apparently, Jammeh did not want him alive and free. Sonko, who was the Interior Minister, allegedly participated in the murder.
According to the indictment, Sonko was linked to the arrest and torture of several people involved in the April 2016 protests demanding electoral reforms before the planned presidential polls later in the year. Political activist Solo Sandeng, who mobilised and led the demonstrations, was among the people rounded up and taken to the offices of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), where they were allegedly tortured and he was killed. At least five of his colleagues who were lined up to testify against Sonko, the Interior Minister, have since died.
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Expanding universal jurisdiction
The Gambia has gained recognition in the realm of international humanitarian law primarily for the ‘historic genocide case’ it filed in 2019 at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar for its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.
Its influence is steadily growing in the broader arena of international justice, especially with respect to the application of the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Sonko is the second person to be tried in Switzerland before a non-military court for serious crimes committed abroad, and the highest-ranked official to be prosecuted in Europe on the basis of universal jurisdiction, according to Trial International.
The first one was the case of Alieu Kosiah, the commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy militia, who was in 2021 found guilty of killing and executing civilians during the 1993-1995 conflict in Liberia. In June 2023, the Liberian national was sentenced by the Court of Appeal of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity.
Sonko’s case is not the first one in Europe regarding crimes committed in The Gambia. In November of last year, a German court imposed a life sentence on Bai Lowe, a member of Jammeh’s death squad, after finding him guilty of various murders, including that of prominent journalist Deyda Hydara.
With Lowe convicted and Sonko’s fate to be determined by the end of January, attention will soon shift to the United States (US), where another Jungler, Michael Correa, is scheduled to stand trial in September this year in Denver, Colorado.
Correa is the fourth person to be tried under the US’s extraterritorial torture statute, according to the American authorities. The others are Sulejman Mujagic, for his role in the Bosnian War, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr., the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted in 2008 and is now serving a 97-year prison sentence in Florida, and Ross Roggio, who was convicted in 2023 of torture as part of an alleged unlawful firearms manufacturing scheme in Iraq.
Many of the individuals implicated in the crimes committed in The Gambia have fled the country, with nearly two dozen members of Jammeh’s death squad reportedly finding refuge in Guinea-Bissau.
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Jammeh lives a private life in Equatorial Guinea, with little information getting out except for occasional leaked audios and photos, some depicting him dancing to salsa and others showing him on some farms.
“The Sonko case should reinforce efforts back in The Gambia to try crimes under Jammeh’s rule so that perpetrators are held to account for the atrocities committed,” Trial International quoted Gambian activist Sirra Ndow of ANEKED as saying.
However, despite the progress in the cases in Europe and America, there are growing concerns about the slow pace of the pursuit of justice in The Gambia. More than two years after the Truth Commission submitted its final report, the government is yet to establish the mechanisms and policies it had promised to allow for the prosecution of the perpetrators. This includes the setting up of a hybrid court to prosecute Jammeh-era crimes.
“The Gambian government and Ecowas should move without delay to create the hybrid court,” said Elise Keppler, the Associate International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch. “Victims and the Gambian public have waited a very long time to have the chance to see justice done.”