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Trial of Sonko for Alleged Crimes Against Humanity Opens in Switzerland

Trial of Sonko for Alleged Crimes Against Humanity Opens in Switzerland

Ousman Sonko, a former Gambian Interior Minister, is being tried in Switzerland from January 8 for alleged crimes against humanity committed in his home country between 2000 and 2016. The highly anticipated trial, held at the Federal Criminal Court of Bellinzona, is expected to last until January 30.

This trial is seen by victim associations as historic for both Gambia and Switzerland. After seven years in pre-trial detention, Sonko faces charges of extrajudicial executions, disappearances, acts of torture, and rapes under former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh, and for failing to prevent them.

Sonko was charged in April this year, marking the second trial for international crimes in a Swiss civil court, following the trial of Liberian Alieu Kosiah. The trial will be held at the Federal Criminal Court of Bellinzona, in southeastern Switzerland.

The court’s secretariat informed Justice Info that a detailed schedule of the proceedings could not be provided. Only 11 victims are expected to testify, according to Sonko’s lawyer, Philippe Currat. Sonko will plead not guilty and hopes to have some charges dropped.

TRIAL International, a Swiss NGO, filed the initial complaint, stating that Sonko’s trial could be a significant step in seeking truth and justice for many Gambians. Sonko is the highest-ranking state official tried in Europe for international crimes under universal jurisdiction.

Germany and the USA have also initiated criminal proceedings related to Jammeh-era atrocities in Gambia. The Gambian truth commission recommended prosecutions in its December 2021 report, but Gambia has conducted only two related trials, leading to murder convictions, not international crimes. Former dictator Jammeh remains in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

The Swiss prosecutor has requested the court to make the trial accessible to a broader audience, especially in Gambia. The defense supports this, suggesting public hearings be translated into English and made available online.

The trial will be conducted in German, with only questions to the accused and victims translated into English. However, the main hearing’s proceedings will be published in English on the court’s website, and Gambian journalists can be accredited.

Sonko’s lawyer plans to raise several preliminary questions, including the validity of the second indictment, witness testimonies from Gambia, and the applicability of Switzerland’s universal jurisdiction before 2011. Swiss law incorporated international crimes in 2011, and if the court decides the law does not apply retroactively, some charges may be dropped.

The prosecutor emphasizes Sonko’s criminal responsibility, not only for direct involvement in alleged offenses but also as Interior Minister in charge of police and prison administration. Sonko allegedly committed crimes both individually and with a collective of authors, including Jammeh and senior security and prison service members, constituting a widespread and systematic attack against Gambian civilians.

Sonko’s lawyer will challenge his hierarchical responsibility and present an alibi for some events, arguing that Swiss law does not apply before 2011.

Sonko, turning 55 on January 9, will have been in Swiss pre-trial detention for seven years by January 25. His lawyer has protested the « disproportionate » length of this detention and its impact on Sonko’s physical and mental health. Sonko, a diabetic, has faced isolation, lack of light, and food access issues in detention, leading to severe depression, though he is deemed fit for trial.

Source: Justice Info, Article by Julia Crawford, January 8, 2024.