Sonko case: How a Swiss court failed survivors of sexual violence in The Gambia, and worldwide

On the May 15, 2024 a court in Switzerland found Ousman Sonko, long term interior minister in The Gambia under the Jammeh regime, guilty of multiple counts of intentional homicide, torture and false imprisonment that were committed, as “part of a systematic attack on the civilian population” of the country. He is the highest ranking foreign official ever convicted by an European court. 

While Sonko’s conviction marks another milestone in the pursuit of justice for victims of human rights violations in The Gambia and globally, it is also disappointing for organisations and individuals working closely with and for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Indeed, while Binta Jamba bravely testified that Ousman Sonko raped and tortured her for years, after having murdered her husband, the charges were dropped because the court considered it to be an “individual crime” outside its jurisdiction. 

The decision disregards and distorts the cruel reality experienced by women and girls during the 22 years of the Jammeh regime: far from being a private matter, sexual violence by state officials was a criminal enterprise using state resources and means at their disposal. We are therefore alarmed that the court did not rule on the charge of rape despite it being as systematic as other crimes that Sonko has been found guilty of.

Since the historical neglect of sexualized and gender-based violence during Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, significant progress has been made in both the statutes and jurisprudence of international criminal tribunals concerning these crimes. Yet, time and time again, national courts applying the principle of universal jurisdiction as well as international ones, have decontextualised sexual violence from the broader pattern of violence. There is a tendency to view rape as ‘isolated,’ often because justice actors misinterpret it as a private or opportunistic crime (‘sex without consent’), when in fact it is a tool used by repressive regimes just as torture and killings. 

Sexualised torture, rape and exploitation were common feature of the Jammeh regime and were perpetrated by many senior men, including the president himself. Several survivors and witnesses who spoke before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) provided detailed accounts of how state officials, while acting in their official capacity, sexually assaulted women on many occasions. For example, sexual violence in detention was common as early as 1995 and affected women as well as men. What these testimonies revealed is certainly just the top of a horrific iceberg.

Over the two years of its existence, the TRRC heard prominent enablers of the past regime and confronted them with many of the allegations made against them. However, they were never asked about their implication in sexual and gender-based violence. As a matter of fact, not once were witnesses from the security sector asked publicly about their knowledge of, or participation in, such crimes.

And neither the TRRC nor the Swiss Court seemed to have investigated what could have well been a pattern of sequestration and rape by Ousman Sonko. When Binta Jamba testified before the TRRC about her ordeal, she mentioned that on two occasions she was held captive in a house where she was raped and beaten by Sonko. The soldier who freed her from the room, told her that his “boss brought several other women here”. Who are these other women? And could Sonko really have had them guarded by a soldier if he was not in a position of power?

Sexual violence committed by officials is not a “private matter”. If transitional justice mechanisms, such as truth commissions and courts, fail to adequately investigate sexual and gender-based violence, nothing will change for the many survivors and perpetrators will continue to enjoy the impunity they cherish.

As The Gambia is in the process of setting up an Hybrid Court to prosecute the many crimes committed under the Jammeh regime, we call on the national and foreign jurisdictions to write history by fully and truthfully investigating and prosecuting sexual and gender-based violence at all levels. Only then will survivors feel that justice was served, for all.

This commentary is written by activists Fatou Baldeh, CEO of Women in Liberation & Leadership (WILL); Nana-Jo Ndow, founder and executive director of African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED); Sirra Ndow, country director at ANEKED; Fatoumatta Sandeng, Founder & CEO – Solo Sandeng Foundation; and Marion Volkmann-Brandau, human rights lawyer.