By Mustapha K. Darboe with New Narratives
Bellinzona, Switzerland–The first witness in the crimes against humanity trial of 55-year-old Ousman Sonko—Gambia’s former interior minister—told a the Federal Criminal Court that Sonko imprisoned and raped her repeatedly for years.
Binta Jamba is the widow of Almamo Manneh—a former soldier in Gambia’s State Guards—an elite military unit guarding the Gambian presidency. In 2000, Manneh was accused of a coup and was killed under mysterious circumstances.
Sonko is currently on trial in Switzerland for crimes against humanity for his alleged role in a series of crimes perpetrated against Gambians under the 22-year rule of former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh. Jammeh ruled Gambia with an iron fist and was accused of numerous human rights violations, including murder and severe torture. Sonko first served in the military, rising through the ranks to command the State Guards in 2003.
Jamba, who first testified before Gambia’s Truth Commission in October 2019, said she was raped multiple times by the former interior minister at various locations in The Gambia, events she said left lasting physical and emotional scars.
Between January to December 2000, Jamba told the court Wednesday, “I was just like a sex slave to him.” Jamba said she was impregnated by Sonko twice between 2000 to 2002 and was forced to abort both pregnancies, which, she said, were arranged by Sonko. (Abortion is illegal in the Gambia.)
“I was very sick after the abortions… I was constantly bleeding,” said Jamba, as she broke down in tears.
Sonko’s lawyer, Philippe Currat, had no questions for Jamba on the substance of her testimony. Currat later explained that Jamba’s statement was contradictory, and his questions would have added little value.
From 1994 until early 2000, Manneh, Jamba’s husband, was close to Jammeh and implicated in the torture of several high-profile political detainees, including former ministers of Gambia’s first president, Dawda Kairaba Jawara, in 1995, an investigation by Gambia’s Truth Commission found.
Some detainees were “beaten and kicked by the soldiers, who subjected many of them to mock executions. They were threatened frequently by Almamo Manneh and [his colleague] Bubacarr Bah, who would tell them that they were waiting for the order of the (Capt. Yahya Jammeh) to kill them and cut them into pieces and throw them to the dogs. This caused the detainees great fear and anguish as they genuinely believed that they would be killed,” the Commission found.
It is unclear why Manneh fell out with Jammeh. However, Jamba, who described her husband’s relationship with Jammeh as a “good” one, said said Manneh’s murder was orchestrated by Sonko.
“Yahya Jammeh, Ousman Sonko, and Ismaila Jammeh [Sonko’s orderly] planned and organized the killing of Almamo Manneh, which was carried out by the group sent out to lure him to Bund Road,” where Manneh was killed, said the Commission. But at the hearing on Wednesday, Sonko declined to speak on the specifics of Manneh’s killing.
“I cannot comment as far as the case of Almamo Manneh is concerned,” said Sonko. “In my statement, I did not refer to anything [that reveals] operational [details]…I am still bound by the official secrecy act.”
Lt. Col. Bunja Darboe testifies before Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission
Horrific torture of Lt. Col. Bunja Darboe
The second witness to take the stand on Wednesday was Lt. Col. Bunja Darboe, a serving Gambian soldier, arrested on the allegation of his involvement in a 2006 coup. Darboe was allegedly tortured and forced to write a statement implicating himself, a document used as evidence against him at the court-martial in Banjul.
“All they said was that a speech was found on me. But that was not true. They forced me to write it,” said Lt. Col. Darboe. “Sonko is here, and I challenge him to tell the truth.”
Sonko was then chief of Gambia’s police who allegedly sat on a panel of security officer that oversaw the torture and interrogation of detainees including Darboe. The investigation by the Truth Commission found that such panels were accompanied by brutal torture of Junglers— members of a hit squad who operated under Jammeh’s orders.
Darboe said his torturers placed a plastic bag over his head, and he was subjected to horrific torture. He then broke down in tears.
“My hand was hurting me. Everywhere was paining me. When they were beating me, my hand was fractured and also dislocated. One of them cocked a pistol and asked me to say my last prayers. I could not say anything,” said Darboe.
“At that moment, I just wanted to die. I did not want to live. I was fed up with the humiliation. The pain was so extreme that I could not bear it. I was helpless.”
The trial continues Thursday.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.