Ex-minister's arrest an “important sign” for torture victims

A ferry brings back people who fled to the port in Banjul, Gambia, as it reopens Keystone

What's behind the Swiss arrest of Gambia's former interior minister, Ousman Sonko, who came to Switzerland seeking political asylum?

This content was published on January 27, 2017 - 15:48
Julia Crawford,

Authorities are investigating the claims of a Geneva-based advocacy group TRIAL International, which filed a criminal complaint to the authorities in Bern alleging that Sonko perpetrated serious human rights abuses during his decade as interior minister.

On Friday, the Bern justice authorities said that they had requested that Sonko be remanded in custody. A court has 48 hours to decide on this request., an independent media platform of Fondation Hirondelle spoke that receives support from the Swiss government and Geneva, asked Bénédict de Moerloose, a lawyer who heads TRIAL's criminal law and investigation division, to explain the charges.

Bénédict de Moerloose: As interior minister of Gambia from 2006 to 2016, Sonko was head of the police and he was also in charge of detention facilities. The police have been accused of widespread acts of torture particularly against dissidents, opponents and journalists, so the accusation is torture, either as a direct perpetrator or as an accessory. However, the investigating authorities in the canton of Bern have now re-categorized the alleged crimes as crimes against humanity, which means the case is likely, under Swiss law, to be referred to the federal authorities.

The crimes are said to have been numerous. It was allegedly a very repressive and dictatorial regime under former president Yahya Jammeh and Sonko, who was one of his right-hand men. Arbitrary detentions appear to have been a speciality of the regime, along with torture and other atrocities. It is said to have been a joint responsibility of the police who were under Sonko and the police falling under the presidency, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). So there are many cases where police carried out arrests and then handed people over to the NIA, allegedly to be tortured. But even if the suspects were then in the hands of the NIA, under Gambian law it is the interior minister who has responsibility for places of detention.

JI: On what evidence are your accusations based?

BDM: We have gathered evidence based primarily on reports from sources like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and special rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial executions. There are also decisions from the regional ECOWAS court accusing Gambia of torture, so there is a wide consensus on the practice of torture by the former Gambian regime. We have also been able to talk to experts and human rights lawyers who have confirmed those accusations. And we are continuing the investigations.

JI: Where is Sonko now and has he been arrested? 

BDM: According to reports he has been arrested and is being questioned by police in the canton of Bern.

JI: How did he end up in Switzerland and how did he end up in Bern?

BDM: We don’t know his exact trail, but apparently he filed an asylum request in Sweden and Spain and then in Switzerland. He has been here in Switzerland for almost two months. We filed a case of torture and under Swiss law, torture cases are dealt with by the regional cantonal authorities, whereas genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes fall under the federal prosecuting authorities. However, the crimes have now been characterized as crimes against humanity, as I said.

JI: What happens now? Do you think the Swiss authorities will open a case?

BDM: The authorities, who have opened a criminal investigation, are now obliged under the Swiss Criminal Code and the UN Torture Convention to thoroughly investigate the case.

JI: If the investigations were to result in a trial, wouldn’t that be ironic given that Sonko’s former boss Jammeh seems to have gotten some kind of immunity in exchange for stepping down peacefully?

BDM: It would be an important step for justice. And it would be even more important if others manage to obtain some kind of amnesty or immunity and impunity still prevails.  It is already a very important sign for the victims that he has been arrested, and if he were brought to trial it would be an even stronger sign. It could also be a trigger for other prosecutions.

This article was first publishedExternal link by on January 26, 2017

Swiss involvement

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 that Sonko had been in possession of a Swiss-issued Schengen visum. 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 Canton Bern's attorney general’s office.

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