BELLIZONA, Switzerland– Gambia’s former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko took the stand in his own defence on Wednesday in his trial on crimes against humanity in Switzerland. Sonko admitted to writing a note, in which he claimed to have received orders from ex-president Yahya Jammeh, to shoot and kill protesters in 2016.
Sonko served as police chief under Jammeh from 2005 to 2006. In the latter part of 2006, he was appointed interior minister, a position he held from November 2006 to February 2012 and from May 2012 to September 2016 when he had a fall out with Jammeh and fled to Switzerland where he claimed asylum. The reason for his fallout with Jammeh has never been made public.
The Swiss Attorney General’s office, along with 10 plaintiffs from Gambia, is accusing Sonko of torture, murder, false imprisonment, rape, and deprivation of liberty, allegedly perpetrated against Gambians during Jammeh’s 22-year rule. Sonko is also alleged to have played a role in the executions of 49 West African migrants in 2005.
Swiss authorities are trying Sonko under the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” which holds that crimes committed against all of humanity can be tried anywhere regardless of where the crimes took place. Sonko was arrested and charged in 2017 based on evidence gathered by Swiss justice activists TRIAL International. The Gambia’s Truth Commission later recommended he be tried for a range of alleged crimes.
Earlier this week hearings focused on treatment of prisoners when Sonko served as interior minister. Several plaintiffs claimed torture was widespread within the prison system in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. Two serving Gambian prison officers were flown to Bellinzona by Swiss authorities to testify to the poor treatment.
A significant part of the hearings also focused on Sonko’s alleged complicity in the torture of people who were protesting electoral reform and arrested in Banjul in April 2016. One of the protesters, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, died in state custody—an event for which five former officials of the National Intelligence Agency were sentenced to death by a High Court in Banjul in 2022.
One alleged victim, arrested in April 2016, told the court Sonko was present at the paramilitary headquarters, where they were initially held, and on the panel that investigated and oversaw their torture. Sonko has denied all the charges.
When Swiss prosecutors raided Sonko’s apartment in Switzerland after his arrest in 2017, they found a handwritten note in a suitcase. He had previously denied the existence of the note, but on Wednesday, his position changed. He confirmed the note found at his apartment was written by him for his Swiss asylum procedure.
At the time of the protest, the ex-president was away in Turkey. It is unclear when Sonko received the orders from him. In the note, he claimed to have received an instruction from Jammeh to “shoot and kill the April 14 to 16 demonstrators,” an order he said he declined to carry out, though he continued to serve as interior minister until September that year.
“I prepared [the note] after I was removed from office, and it was to be used for my asylum,” he said. Sonko contested the accuracy of some details in the note.
The note also contained a directive to harass the opposition and deny them protest permits. The note calls into question Sonko’s operational role. Throughout the trial, he has maintained that he was not involved in operational matters, such as issuing protest permits, which allegedly falls under the function of the police chief.
Sonko also claimed in the note to have received instructions from Jammeh to hand over the arrested protesters to National Intelligence Agency officials but denied this part was carried out.
At least two alleged torture victims – Fatoumatta Jawara and Fatou Camara – appeared before the Swiss court on Wednesday. Both were involved in a protest in April 2016 led by Sandeng.
Both testified to being tortured at the state central prison, Mile 2, and the National Intelligence Agency complex, and broke down during their testimonies.
Unlike Modou Ngum, Jawara and Camara did not testify to seeing Sonko at the paramilitary or NIA headquarters, where they were allegedly tortured. Sonko denies involvement in the arrest, detention, or torture of people at the NIA.
“We were taken to be beaten mercilessly for hours…,” said Jawara. “We were blindfolded, taken by another man who masked his face to the panel. We were asked questions that I could not answer because I was barely conscious. They brought me back to be tortured. They said I was refusing to answer. All my clothes were torn. I was urinating blood for months.” All the victims said they were not permitted medical attention for several days.
The Swiss prosecutors are trying to prove Sonko’s responsibility for torture through his participation in various investigation panels as inspector general or for ordering or abetting abuse as interior minister.
The hearing continues with a cross-examination of Sonko’s testimony.
This was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.