By Waceke Njoroge
A Swiss jail will continue playing host to former Gambian minister Ousman Sonko after his latest appeal for release was rejected.
The Federal Criminal Court in Switzerland was quoted as having cited the risk that he could flee and the possibility of enhanced charges against the former powerful minister as the reason for detaining him until at least the end of October 2021.
Sonko was first arrested at a Swiss asylum centre in January 2017 and has been in detention since as the authorities investigate allegations of human rights violations levelled against him by human rights group TRIAL International. The Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland has periodically extended his detention during the almost five years that he has been in jail.
The prosecutors were said to suspect that Sonko committed numerous crimes when he was police chief and later interior minister under the autocratic regime of President Yahya Jammeh.
They were said to believe that he was responsible for torture conducted by the Gambian police and prison staff. He has also been linked to Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency and Jammeh’s hit squad commonly known as the “Junglers”, whose members are suspected to have committed numerous crimes, including murder and torture. Sonko was mentioned adversely several times during the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission hearings in The Gambia, which ended in May 2021. The commission is still writing its report.
The SonntagsBlick newspaper, which first reported the latest development in Sonko’s case after the court’s September 1, 2021 ruling, also said Swiss investigators from the Federal Office of Police and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) had travelled to The Gambia at the end of June 2021 to gather more evidence to use in the case against the former minister.
Keystone-SDA news agency quoted an OAG spokesman as confirming that officers had travelled to The Gambia “several times during the course of the procedures to gather evidence in the framework of mutual judicial cooperation, notably to question witnesses”.
Sonko served as Interior minister between 2006 and 2016. He fled after falling out with Jammeh and sought refuge in Sweden, applying for residency in September 2016. He went to Switzerland after his application was rejected and was soon arrested after TRIAL International filed a complaint against him.
The principle of “universal jurisdiction”, for crimes such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity can be tried even if the accused is not a national and the crimes were committed in another country. Switzerland in particular recognises the principle of universal justice, meaning that suspects accused of high-profile crimes elsewhere can be tried in its courts.
Sonko could be the second person brought to trial in Switzerland for international crimes after Liberian Alieu Kosiah, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for war crimes.