By Mustapha K Darboe with New Narratives
Swiss Federal Criminal Court where Ousman Sonko is facing charges of crimes against humanity
BELLINZONA, Switzerland– Demba Dem, the fourth plaintiff in the crimes against humanity trial of Gambia’s former interior minister, Ousman Sonko, told the court on Friday that Sonko sat on an investigative panel that oversaw his interrogation and torture.
Dem was a Gambian lawmaker for ex-President Yahya Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party in 2006 when Dem was arrested by security officials over his alleged involvement in a foiled plot to overthrow Jammeh. (Dem has always maintained his innocence and denied being involved in the attempted coup.)
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, close to 70 Gambians—military officers and civilians, including Dem—were allegedly arrested and subjected to horrific torture at the complex of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), on the outskirts of Banjul.
“The suspects were all tortured at the NIA. Evidence was fabricated and used against them to convict them of treason,” Gambia’s Truth Commission found. Those tortured also included journalists Madi Ceesay and Musa Saidykhan, both of whom are expected to testify against Sonko in the coming days.
Dem is the third plaintiff before the Swiss court to testify on events related to the alleged 2006 attempted coup. Sonko faces allegations that he participated in the panel that oversaw the interrogations and torture of detainees, charges he has denied. If found guilty, Sonko could face up to 20 years in prison and deportation at the end of his sentence.
As the landmark trial enters its second week on Monday the court will hear from six more plaintiffs. A tenth plaintiff, Nogoi Njie died in September while waiting for her day in court, allegedly from injuries inflicted by Sonko and the hit squad under his direction, in 2016.
Sonko’s alleged crimes extended beyond Gambia. Among the crimes attributed to him is the 2005 killings of about 44 Ghanaians, nine Nigerians, two Togolese, and nationals of Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal along with a subsequent effort to cover them up. West African governments have demanded accountability in this case.
After Jammeh’s election defeat in 2016 the new government established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission to examine his alleged crimes. The Commission found at least 600 people were involved in human rights violations and crimes during Jammeh’s 22-year rule. At least 71 were recommended for prosecution. Just eight have faced prosecution for Jammeh-era crimes inside Gambia.
Sonko is the second Jammeh official to face prosecution in a European jurisdiction, under the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” which holds that crimes committed against all humanity can be tried anywhere regardless of where they were committed. Sonko is being tried in Switzerland where he sought asylum in 2016. Bai Lowe was convicted in Germany in November 2023. Michael Sang Correa, another alleged member of the hit squad, is scheduled to be tried for torture in the United States in September, 2024.
“The universal jurisdiction is narrowing the space for perpetrators,” said Gambian human rights lawyer Abdoulie Fatty. “It also gives hope that slowly but surely the perpetrators cannot escape. That they can run but they cannot hide.”
*This was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.