Swiss court opens trial of Gambian ex-ministerMon, 08 Jan 2024 12:27:41 GMT

Former Gambian interior minister Ousman Sonko faced trial in Switzerland on Monday, accused of crimes against humanity committed under the regime of ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh.Sonko, who denies the charges, appeared at the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland, in the southern city of Bellinzona.The former minister, who turns 55 on Tuesday, is not expected to address the court during Monday’s opening hearings.The proceedings are likely to last a month and the verdict is not expected before March. If convicted, Sonko could face life imprisonment.The trial is taking place under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide regardless of where they were committed. Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron grip from 1994 to 2016. He fled to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017 after losing a presidential election to the relatively unknown Adama Barrow.Sonko was the small West African nation’s interior minister from 2006 to 2016.- Seeing Sonko ‘face to face’ -There are 10 complainants in the case, according to Trial International, including eight “direct victims”.The complainant parties arrived together at the court, brandishing signs reading: “Bring Jammeh and his accomplices to justice.”Plaintiff Ramzia Diab told AFP outside court: “It’s an important day for us. We feel that finally we (can search) for justice.” She had initially been afraid to see Sonko in the courtroom, saying he was “a very dangerous human being, in my opinion”.  “But now, I think I have the zeal and the energy to see him, face to face,” she said.Sonko has been in custody since his arrest in Switzerland in January 2017 after applying for asylum following his sacking. He was detained after a complaint by Geneva-based NGO Trial International.He was accompanied in court by his lawyer, Philippe Currat. His daughter, Olimatou Sonko, is also on his legal team.Following a criminal investigation lasting more than six years, the Swiss attorney general’s office filed an indictment against Sonko in April 2023.He is accused of “having supported, participated in and failed to prevent systematic and generalised attacks as part of the repression carried out by the Gambian security forces against all opponents of the regime”.The charges span a 16-year period and include nine counts of crimes against humanity.He is accused of having “deliberately killed, tortured, raped and unlawfully deprived individuals of their liberty in a serious manner”.- Legal landmark -Trial International says Sonko is the highest-ranking state official ever to be tried in Europe for international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.The NGO’s co-founder and executive director, Philip Grant, said he was pleased that some of the plaintiffs were able to appear in court in person to explain their suffering.”Today we are going to focus on the essentials — the opening of the trial and the fact that the justice process can finally start for the whole of The Gambia,” he told AFP.Sonko is accused of committing the alleged crimes in his roles first within the army, then as inspector general of the police and finally as a government minister.His lawyer says responsibility for the events on the charge sheet lies with the national intelligence agency and not his client.”This agency has never been under the authority or control, in fact or law, of Ousman Sonko,” Currat told AFP.In 2011, Switzerland recognised the right to judge the most serious crimes alleged to have taken place abroad — providing the suspect is on Swiss soil.Sonko’s lawyer argued on Monday that under the principle of non-retroactivity, he should not be tried for any alleged acts before this date.”(Sonko) requests you to decide to abandon the proceedings in respect of the acts described in the indictment which are alleged to have taken place before January 1, 2011″, Currat said.