Torture in Gambia: ex-Minister Ousman Sonko must face his responsibilities

26.01.2017 ( Last modified: 14.02.2017 )

Dictator Yahya Jammeh has reigned for 20 years over Gambia – a reign that saw the widespread use of torture and extrajudiciary executions. The Swiss prosecuting authorities will now have to determine whether one of his closest collaborators, former Minister of Interior, Ousman Sonko, has participated in these crimes.

Since the early 2000s, the international community has repeatedly denounced the brutality of the Gambian regime. The United Nations, NGOs and regional courts have all outlined the numerous exactions committed by the State.

One of the regime’s strongmen, Ousman Sonko, is currently in Switzerland. This former Minister of Interior (2006-2016) was head of the police and of detention centers. Could he really have been unaware of the ongoing human rights violations?

As the head of detention centers, M. Sonko could not have ignored the large-scale torture that political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders suffered there”, says Benedict de Moerloose, Head of the Inquiries and Criminal Law Division at TRIAL International.

Criminal complaint against Ousman Sonko

Asked to step down on 16 September 2016, Ousman Sonko has fled to Senegal and then to Sweden, where is asylum application was rejected. He allegedly entered Swiss territory on 10 November 2016, where he also filed for asylum.

Tipped off about his presence, TRIAL International  lodged a criminal complaint before the Bernese prosecuting authorities on 25 January 2017. Given the suspicions weighing on the former Minister, the NGO demanded the rapid opening of proceedings on torture accounts.

Arrest and procedure

The Bernese prosecuting authorities arrested the suspect on 26 January 2017, in accordance with the Convention against Torture and the Swiss Criminal Code.

Following his arrest, the Bernese authorities head the suspect and decided to keep him in preventive detention for three months. The charges against Ousman Sonko were requalified as crimes against humanity and the case should now be transferred to the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (Ministère public de la confederation).

“We welcome the arrest of the suspect and the authorities’ reactivity”, says Philip Grant, Director of TRIAL International. “We now hope that the relevant prosecuting bodies will meet the importance of the case with a sufficiently funded investigation.”

To this day, the crimes of Jammeh’s government have never been judged, and torturers walk free in complete impunity. Now that Gambia is preparing for a democratic transition, proceedings against M. Sonko would be a symbol of hope for many victims.

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