By Mustapha K Darboe with New Narratives
Ousman Sonko, Gambia’s former interior minister, who turned 55 on Tuesday, took the stand for the first time at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, Switzerland. He provided details on elements of the charges of crimes against humanity brought against him by the Office of the Swiss Attorney General.
The trial began on Monday when Sonko’s lawyer, Philippe Currat, raised a number of procedural issues, including arguments that Switzerland lacks jurisdiction to try Sonko on events before 2011, the year the offence of crimes against humanity came into effect in the country.
The panel of 3 judges declined to rule on the question of jurisdiction at this stage, stating that this and other procedural issues would be determined alongside the material facts of the case
Currat argued that the question of jurisdiction was related to the elements of crimes against humanity, including how systematic and widespread violations against civilians were, and would influence the outcome of the court’s decision on Sonko’s guilt.
Thus, according to Currat, the question of jurisdiction should have been determined at the earliest stage of the trial to ensure that victims not eligible to be plaintiffs in the trial—those whose alleged crimes were committed before 2011—are removed from the indictment.
“We must start with that. Do we have a jurisdiction or not?… With an early decision, we would have been in a position to concentrate on what falls clearly under the Swiss jurisdiction,” he said after Tuesday’s hearing.
Had the court agreed with Sonko’s argument, several witnesses and plaintiffs who travelled from The Gambia to appear before the court would not have been heard.
The trial continues tomorrow with the testimony of Binta Jamba, who was allegedly repeatedly raped between 2000 to 2005.
The Tuesday hearing also came with some bad news for Gambian journalists. The panel of judges rejected all parties’ requests to have the trial translated into English.
Journalists must rely on colleagues and lawyers on the floor to understand the content of what is being said during sessions in German.
Sonko began his Tuesday testimony by explaining the difficult circumstances under which he was detained in Switzerland. The former interior minister was arrested in Switzerland in January 2017. During his first experience of detention from 2017 to September 2018, he said he was locked in a cell for 23 hours a day with limited time to eat and bathe.
“The cell, the window is small and high up. You cannot see outside. I have no access to natural sunlight. I have to use the light 24/7,” Sonko told the court. These restrictions, he said, resulted in an eye injury.
After 2018, Sonko was moved to another detention centre. The conditions there, he said, improved slightly. His seven years in detention, he told the court, have caused his health to deteriorate. Because of his detention experience, Sonko said Switzerland was in no position to judge human rights.
In Sonko’s 5-page preliminary testimony, he provided context on events that occurred during his role as police chief, interior minister and military leader. Sonko raised the 2014 visit of UN experts to assess prison conditions in The Gambia. “I invited the UN Special Rapporteurs to visit The Gambia so that their recommendations would enable us to activate political leverage to improve the situation as much as possible,” Sonko said.
But in 2014, the two UN special rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions— Christof Heyns and Juan Méndez— were offered a guided tour upon their arrival in Gambia on a prison visit under the mandate of the Human Rights Council. The experts were reportedly informed that “under no circumstances would they be allowed to visit the Security Wing, where [among others] the death row prisoners are held.”
“Due to denial of access to the Security Wing of Mile 2 prison to visit those sentenced to lengthy sentences, including the death penalty, an inference must be drawn that there is something important to hide. This incident forced us to suspend this integral part of the visit,” said Heyns at the time.
“To tell the truth, I was particularly disappointed that the two Special Rapporteurs preferred to provoke a clash with the Presidency as soon as they arrived, rather than carry out their mission in such a way as to build a relationship that would be useful for the country’s development,” Sonko said.
Sonko admitted that the prisons in Gambia “are notoriously substandard” but he said such conditions are not as a “result of Gambian state policy”. He attributed it to a historical legacy of colonialism.
*This was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.