Former interior minister Sonko sentenced to 20 years in prison in Switzerland

Former Interior Minister Sonko’s lawyer asks for acquittal, $1m compensation for wrongful detention

By Mariam Sankanu

BELLINZONA, Switzerland- The Swiss Federal Court in Bellinzona has sentenced Gambia’s former interior minister— Ousman Sonko— to 20 years after finding him guilty of  multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment, each  as a crime against humanity

Sonko, 55, is the first minister under the 22-year rule of former president Yahya Jammeh to be put before a court and convicted based on universal  jurisdiction. Jammeh ruled Gambia with an iron fist and was accused of numerous human rights violations including murder and severe torture by the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reconciliation Commission. Sonko first served in the military, rising through the ranks to command the State Guards, an elite military unit which guards the Gambian presidency, in 2003.

Sonko would serve both as the head of the Gambia police and the interior minister presiding over the internal security matters of the country from 2005 to 2016.

The 7-year period Sonko served in detention will be taken into account, according to the Federal Court.

“The Criminal Chamber combines the custodial sentence with a 12-year judicial expulsion of  Ousman SONKO from Switzerland,” said the Federal Court in a press statement. 

“He is obliged to pay the private claimants compensation  for the non-material pain and suffering they sustained.”

The former minister fell out with ex-president Yahya Jammeh in 2016 and fled to Switzerland. He was arrested in Bern in January 2017, a day after the Geneva-based rights organization— Trial International— filed a criminal complaint against him. 

He was formally indicted by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General before the Federal Criminal Court in April 2023.

Sonko was slapped with several charges by the Swiss Attorney General’s Office including torture, murder, false imprisonment, rape, and deprivation of liberty. 

The charges were supported by ten Gambian plaintiffs, among which nine traveled to Bellinzona in January to testify when Sonko first appeared in court on January 8. 

“The Criminal Chambers concludes that Ousman SONKO committed these crimes – the homicides,  false imprisonments and tortures – as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population,” said the Court. 

The two rape charges against the former minister were abandoned by the court after it determined that, though they may have happened, they did not fit as part of the elements of crimes against humanity.