Will a medieval human rights charter save Ousman Sonko in a medieval Swiss city?

The 55-year-old sat before an all-white, all-Swiss panel of three judges. His freedom or lack thereof, is in their hands. And frankly, he did not come highly recommended. He is the longest serving interior minister for the single most alleged killer of Gambian life since independence, former president Yahya Jammeh. Blood of over 200 lives is allegedly on his hands, according to the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. With torture and other inhumane treatments to spare.

There is a woman on the panel. And the prosecution made sure she heard Ousman Sonko does not respect her kind. True or not, in a court, every word matters, for a judge cannot unhear once heard and as he or she sits in a quiet moment to decide which way to go— guilty or innocent— the brain goes into a replay mode and everything heard goes into the thought process. Isn’t the judge’s mind the fiercest battle ground?

Will a medieval human rights charter save Ousman Sonko in a medieval Swiss city?

Welcome to Bellinzona. A neat, small beautiful regional capital sitting by a mountain— living its present in a glaring past. Any eye can’t miss its three medieval castles– all giving you an iconic view of the city. My apartment, at least for three weeks of my stay in that freezing weather, sat just next to one of those castles. And just about four minutes’ walk from the court where I would meet Ousman Sonko, The Gambia’s former interior minister on trial for crimes against humanity in Switzerland.

On January 8 at 8a.m on the dot, Sonko took his seat before the judges. It is not a usual Gambian court. There was no wig or gavel or any of those weird black robes judges wear in Gambia. For most of us, it was the first time seeing Sonko since he left the country in September 2016. For me, the closest proximity I would have to him, ever. Time had a little impact on him though. He lost some weight and appeared to be developing cataracts in his left eye. He complained during the trial that he developed an eye problem in one of his detention cells where he was in ‘inhumane’ condition including zero exposure to natural sunlight and bad food.

Mustapha K Darboe, the author, and Philippe Currat, the lawyer defending Ousman Sonko

First, the perception

Sonko faces charges of crimes against humanity brought against him by Swiss prosecutors and 10 Gambian plaintiffs. His alleged crimes include torture, murder, false imprisonment, rape, and deprivation of liberty. It has been at least 6 years of investigations.

The court has before it thousands of documents, including reports from UN, rights organisations, the Truth Commission. But Sonko has two primary troubles: fending off his personal charges which have to do with the crimes he is charged with. But also, the contextual elements: that human rights violations was a state policy under a regime he served as a state guards commander, police chief and interior minister for a decade and a half.

Thus, not only does he have to prove he is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, but also have to make a case that such violations, and many more committed under Jammeh, were not part of widespread policy of terror that visited upon a civilian population.

So he thought, let me prove to the white folks we are not a people foreign to the idea of human rights. And for that, what better way to do it than to turn to a medieval human rights charter of Mali empire Kurukan Fuga.

“Without recounting the history of my country, allow me to remind you that Gambia was once part of the Manding Empire, which, under the leadership of Soundjata Keïta, promulgated the Charter of the Mande in 1222, which is now classified as Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is today perceived as among the most ancient text on what is now called human rights,” said Sonko in his opening statement.

A good pitch, I have to say, riddled with ironies. Interesting because Sonko himself is charged with crimes– right to life and physical integrity— which fall under Article 5 of Kurukan Fuga, with a far harsher penalty than the Swiss law would allow: death. The Swiss prosecutors are gunning for a life sentence.

The daunting task

Plaintiffs, lawyers and activists who joined the Swiss prosecutors to try Sonko posed in front of the court in Bellinzona

On my first day in court, as we took few minutes break, I bumped into Fatou Camara, one of the alleged victims of torture arrested on April 14, 2016. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. “I never thought this day would come,” she said. She took a seat just about 3 meters behind Sonko.

It is about losing limbs. Losing livelihoods. Torture and incredible suffering. And reliving it with victims, as they narrate them in court again.

Ousman’s case is interesting though. And with far reaching implications. Aside from the alleged murder of Almamo Manneh or the alleged rape of Manneh’s widow Binta Jamba— he is either accused of ordering or by creating the necessary conditions which led to the committal of a crime.

His legal team has made a strong case to demonstrate that Sonko was not involved in operational matters, levels at which the crimes were committed. This includes the panels that ordered torture of detainees, poor detention conditions at Mile 2, among others.

In the court of 13 days, 11 witnesses have testified against Sonko. If anything, he clearly has a strong defense, always thinking ahead and, like all good criminal attorneys, Philippe Currat knows how to utilise the media.

There were efforts by the prosecutors to show Sonko was not a responsible father. The sight of his brilliant daughter, Olimatou Sonko,appears to cast doubt on that. There was a suggestion he was a sexual predator. His former wife Njemeh Bah, with whom he had a child, put in a letter to show how lovely and responsible he was. He voluntarily added history lessons on it: how Gambia participated in creating a medieval human rights charter. And Sonko himself adds to his defense with a good mastery of the Truth Commission. It is not a surprise when asked what he would do had he walked free, he said he wanted to be a lawyer.

Regardless of a fantastic defense, he is not in an enviable situation. Weight of the case even shows in the slight change in the defense strategy. It changed from defending the records of the regime Sonko served to accepting that the rights violations happened as said they did, but Sonko was not part of it. And proving Sonko’s participation in the panels that oversaw alleged tortures was the biggest challenge for the prosecutors throughout the trial. Essentially,  Sonko was operating at policy level, with no connection to what happened at operational level.

The evidence before the Swiss court shows this is problematic for two reasons. First is that all operational matters are designed and reviewed at policy level. Secondly, something unexpected happened. Sonko admitted to writing a note found in his house which tends to show that Jammeh was giving him operational orders, though he denied the content was true. Prosecutors made a good use of this: questioning his credibility. “Why would you write in a note, a content you know to be false?” one of the prosecutors asked. Sonko declined to answer.

Mustapha K Darboe, the author, and Olimatou Sonko, ex-minister’s daughter who in his defence team, in front of the regional court in Bellinzona

The balance between facts and emotions

I have covered the Truth Commission, every session of it. If anything, emotions tend to engulf the environment. It is not any different at the Swiss court. As you attend the trial, you can’t miss a Sonko lookalike— thin, with a turban— sitting, with two others between them. She is Olimatou Sonko, a 24-year-old daughter of the former interior minister who lives in the UK. She was in Bellinzona with her husband and their daughter.

Every story of a crime is as complex as humanity itself. An alleged murderer can be a loving father. A lot of consideration goes into what forms one’s perception. Visualise a father on trial. Particularly on allegations of rape, as a woman. You sit at few meters distance, listen to testimonies of his alleged participation in murder, rape and torture.

“I have always wanted to study law but seeing my dad arrested also motivated me more… It is just me wanting to help.” The sentiment of a daughter named after Sonko’s mother. This, with all you had known him for. A warm hug. And now, you have to leave sentiment out, and help him out in a legal case.

I took a walk with Olimatou to the castle. She was very young to probably digest the whole complex political environment before she left The Gambia in 2013 when she was barely 13 years.

“When I see him, I know I have to suck in all the moments I have with him. As you said, if he is convicted he could go away for a very long time. And because I live in the UK, it will be hard for me to visit him. It is hard. I can’t really hug him,” she said.

On his birthday, I didn’t even know whether to wish him a happy birthday or not. He even made a funny comment ‘why didn’t my mom wish me a happy birthday?’. It didn’t feel like a happy birthday. He is on trial on his birthday and he is being locked up on all of his birthdays for the last seven years.”

Philip Grant— the executive director of Trial International, an international human rights organisation based in Geneva, that filed a criminal complaint leading to the arrest of Ousman Sonko in Switzerland in September 2016— enters the court on the first day of the trial.

Facing the uncomfortable truth

We have traveled 5000 kilometers but to cover a trial of a Gambian being tried by Gambians. Except, Switzerland is only facilitating and funding it. Gambian stories are being told by our people. A few of those stories I covered as a young reporter.

We were being forced to look at ourselves in the mirror, and confront the country’s past— something the State House in Banjul so far lacks the guts to do. Sonko, for example, was charged as an accessory in all but 2 cases. Either way his verdict goes, will have huge implications back home.

I have listened to people testify to ghastly torture at the headquarters and broke into tears. At least, one anonymous witness before TRRC also testified to rape in the Swiss court. These were highly emotional moments, ones that appeared to have emotionally affected even Sonko.

It was not surprising he said the torture meted at Fatoumatta Jawara and others was unacceptable.

One thing as a journalist sitting there, I had thought of, was the missed opportunity to have Sonko testify before the Truth Commission. His guilt or otherwise is in the hands of the court. But perhaps he may be able to explain the inner workings of the Jammeh regime.

What we probably would not need him to tell us is that Jammeh even remotely respected Kurukan Fuga.

“Article 5: Everybody has a right to life and to the preservation of physical integrity. Accordingly, any attempt to deprive one’s fellow being of life is punished with death.”

The author traveled to Switzerland in January, 2024, to cover the ongoing crimes against humanity trial of Ousman Sonko. The Trip was funded by New Narratives. The date of the verdict is unclear but both the prosecutors and the defense make their final pleadings from March 4 to 11. 

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