On 26 January 2017, Gambia’s former Interior Minister, Ousmane Sonko, was arrested near Berne in Switzerland and charged with crimes against humanity. Two alleged victims, supported by the Swiss NGO TRIAL International, recently filed criminal charges
against Sonko, claiming that “they were tortured by the Gambian authorities while Sonko was in charge of security services, both as Inspector General of the Police and then as Minister of the Interior from 2006 till 2016 when he was dismissed. He is accused of having himself participated in these acts of torture.”
This is a significant step forward in the fight against impunity for human rights violations committed in Gambia during the 22-year reign of former president Yahya Jammeh and Gambian public opinion is definitely in favour of his arrest.
For years, human rights organisations, including IRRI, have consistently denounced the abuses of the former regime of Gambia. Anyone who was not in line with government policy was considered an enemy of the state. Numerous journalists, government opponents, human rights defenders and soldiers were murdered, arrested and tortured (see IRRI’s previous post) and several cases of disappearances were reported. These acts were done by Gambian security forces with total impunity and led to thousands of Gambians fleeing the country to seek asylum elsewhere, particularly in Senegal.
There is no doubt that senior Gambian authorities, including former Interior Minister Sonko, were aware of the abuses being committed by the security forces. However, no action was taken to prevent them, but now the evidence is piling up against them. The complainants’ allegations are supported by the testimonies of many Gambian refugees who were helped by IRRI in their asylum claims in Senegal between 2008 and 2016. Many talked of how they had been victims of abuse by the security forces, who were directly under the control of the Gambian Ministry of the Interior. Many had evidence of torture on their bodies.
It is encouraging, therefore, that Gambia recently issued arrest warrants against those suspected of murdering the journalist Deyda Hyadara including Sonko. Gambia has also stated that it intends to request his extradition from Switzerland in relation to these charges. He is also wanted in a separate proceeding in Gambia, for the death of former intelligence chief, Daba Marenah and others.
A former Gambian refugee told IRRI that the arrest of Sonko is highly symbolic for Gambians who suffered under Jammeh and that he should be held accountable for the crimes he has committed. He also said that he is hopeful that other countries hosting Gambians suspected of having committed or involved in human rights violations during the reign of Yahya Jammeh will follow the example of Switzerland in order to help the new government fight impunity. Ultimately, he talked of his hope that even former president Yahya Jammeh, who is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea, will one day be prosecuted for crimes of torture, murder, disappearance and forced displacement of persons.
Whether or not this will ever happen is hard to say. It is encouraging that the new government of President Barrow has said that a body will be set up to investigate forced disappearances in the small West African nation. However, it is urgent that an independent commission of inquiry be put in place in order to thoroughly investigate the full range of serious human rights violations committed during the reign of President Yahya Jammeh from 1994 to 2017.
This work will not only contribute to the fight against impunity in Gambia but it will also bring justice to the victims and their families. To that end, the international community should support the initiatives undertaken by the new authorities to fight impunity and Switzerland’s actions are a step in the right direction in this regard.