An important step in the fight against impunity for crimes against journalists in Gambia : former Interior Minister tried in Switzerland for crimes against humanity including torture of two journalists

Ousman Sonko Gambia trial Switzerland German Deyda Hydara Yahya Jammeh

The final pleadings in the case against former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko are taking place in Switzerland at this beginning of march. The hearings in this trial come right after the November 2023’s historic decision of a German court convicting a Gambian citizen for crimes against humanity for his role in the murder of journalist and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) correspondent Deyda Hydara.  Seeing the Interior Minister convicted for Jammeh’s attacks against journalists would be a major step in The Gambia’s quest for accountability.

A further step in the fight against impunity for crimes journalists against under the era of Yahya Jammeh. At this beginning of March, the Federal Criminal Tribunal in Bellinzona, Switzerland, is hearing the final pleadings in the case against Ousman Sonko, former Minister of the Interior of The Gambia. Sonko is currently standing trial for crimes against humanity under the rule of former president Yahya Jammeh. To silence any opposition, Jammeh was harassing independent media with restrictive legislation and intimidating press workers in various ways, including arson attacks on media infrastructure and personal threats to journalists by anonymous calls or letters. During his dictatorship, journalists, politicians and other critical voices were put to jail, tortured and some even murdered, such as the former correspondent for Reporters without Borders (RSF), Deyda Hydara.

To see Ousman Sonko, a then powerful minister of interior facing independent judges for having imprisoned and tortured journalists is a great achievement. The message of this trial is even more significant as Ousman Sonko is accused under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity: intimidation and persecution of journalists are not single crimes but part of a systematic attack against the entire population of a country. Another key message comes out from this trial when impunity still prevails in 90% of crimes against journalists: we will never let go.

Antoine Bernard
RSF Director, Advocacy and Assistance

As former military commander, then Inspector General of the Police and finally, from 2006 to 2016, Minister of the Interior, Sonko is accused of having played a decisive role in Jammeh’s systematic and generalised repression of those within the civilian population he deemed to be a threat to his power. The Swiss Attorney General has charged him with various counts of crimes against humanity, amongst others.  

Shortly before the end of the Jammeh era, Sonko was removed from office and fled to Switzerland. In 2017, Swiss journalists revealed his identity and a criminal complaint against Sonko was filed in the same year by civil society organizations, supporting victims of the former Gambian regime. Eleven of them have testified in court hearings in January, among them Madi Ceesay, journalist back then and member of the Gambian parliament today, and Musa Saidykhan, editor-in-chief of The Independent, one of the most important newspapers in The Gambia, alongside with Deyda Hydara’s The Point. Both journalists, Madi Ceesay and Musa Saidykhan, got arrested following articles published with The Independent  and, during weeks of detention, were tortured by Gambian authorities - at the time, allegedly under the control of Ousman Sonko.

In November 2023, a German court was the first worldwide to find that crimes under Jammeh were committed in the context of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population and thus constitute crimes against humanity. In Bellinzona, a sentence is expected in a few months. While in the German trial, a rather low-ranking soldier was sentenced to life long imprisonment and ex-minister Sonko could face a similar sentence, the main responsible remains at large: Jammeh himself has been living in Equatorial Guinea since the end of his rule in 2017.

RSF has repeatedly called for Jammeh to be extradited to the Gambia, where the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) has prepared the pathway to accountability for human rights violations under his regime. Putting Jammeh himself to trial would enable another crucial step in The Gambia’s quest for accountability and further strengthen press freedom in The Gambia.

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