Gambian ex-official held in probe of alleged abuses

Gambia's defeated leader Yahya Jammeh waves to supporters departing from Banjul airport Keystone

Swiss authorities have opened an investigation into suspected crimes against humanity against a former Gambian interior minister who applied for asylum in Switzerland. Further details about the case emerged on Friday.

This content was published on January 27, 2017 - 21:37 and agencies/jmh and ilj

On Thursday a Bernese court ordered the arrest of Ousman Sonko, who served under Yahya Jammeh, the dictator who ruled the West African country for 22 years. Sonko was sacked by Jammeh and then fled for Europe. He has been living in an asylum center in canton Bern since last November.

"He has been arrested and will be heard soon," Amaël Gschwind, a spokesperson for the cantonal prosecutor, told Swiss public television, SRF. Authorities confirmed they also launched an investigation into suspected crimes against humanity by Sonko, who commanded an elite squad in Gambia notorious for its brutality.

On Friday, the Bern authorities said that they had requested that Sonko be remanded in custody. A court has 48 hours to decide on this request.

Details also emerged on Friday as to why Switzerland is involved in the case. Last September, Sonko tried to obtain asylum in Sweden. He then fled to Switzerland, where he filed an asylum application.

The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) told Swiss public television SRF and the Swiss news agency on Friday that Sonko had been in possession of a Swiss-issued Schengen visumExternal link. His entry papers were in his function as Gambian interior minister and had been issued by the Swiss representation in Senegal a few years ago, due to an invitation to an international conference in Geneva, said the SEM. The visum is why Sweden had asked Switzerland to take over the Sonko asylum request case, as this follows the rules under the Dublin agreement, which regulates asylum requests among European Union countries. Switzerland took over the case on November 10, 2016 passing it on to canton Bern on November 14.

The Swiss Office of the Attorney General did not want to comment on the case, but said it was in contact with the Canton Bern attorney general’s office.

Criminal complaint

After his presence became known in Switzerland, the Geneva-based group TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint against him for alleged participation in what the group calls the Jammeh regime's "widespread use of torture and extrajudiciary executions". 

The complaint asked Bernese judicial authorities to prosecute Sonko for alleged brutality against opponents through detentions, beatings and killings. The group asked for Sonko to be charged, as is allowable in Switzerland, under an international anti-torture treaty and the Swiss criminal code.

“As the head of detention centers, M Sonko could not have ignored the large-scale torture that political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders suffered there”, Benedict de Moerloose, head of the inquiries and criminal law division at TRIAL, said in a statementExternal link.

A regional public prosecutor in Bern received the criminal denunciation from TRIAL and was examining Sonko’s case. Hundreds of Gambians disappeared during Jammeh’s rule.

Jammeh was linked to money launderers, drug traffickers and others with ties to organized crime or terror-linked organizations. He was defeated as president in December elections, but only left the country this month under international pressure backed by a West African regional military force.

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