Olimatou Sonko, daughter of Gambia’s former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko, talks to the media after the conviction of her father, in front of the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland in Bellinzona, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Olimatou Sonko, daughter of Gambia’s former Interior Minister Ousman Sonko, talks to the media after the conviction of her father, in front of the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland in Bellinzona, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Maria Linda Clericetti/Keystone via AP)

GENEVA — Switzerland’s top criminal court on Wednesday convicted a former interior minister of Gambia for crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 20 years over his role in murder, torture and other repression committed by the West African country’s security forces under its longtime dictator.

Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Ousman Sonko, Gambia’s interior minister from 2006 to 2016 under then-President Yahya Jammeh. But legal rights groups, led by TRIAL International that led the case, still hailed a landmark decision involving a former government official for crimes against humanity, saying it could set a precedent for international justice.

“In its judgement of 15 May 2024, the criminal chamber finds Ousman Sonko guilty of multiple counts of intentional homicide, multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment, each as a crime against humanity,” the court in the southern city of Bellinzona said in a statement.

It cited repression of political opponents, journalists and suspected coup plotters under Jammeh’s 22-year rule.

The two-month trial was welcomed by advocacy groups as a watershed application of the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad.

Human Rights Watch trumpeted a “monumental” verdict, calling it “a major achievement for Switzerland’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for grave crimes committed abroad.”

The Swiss Attorney General’s office said it was “satisfied” with the ruling, touting a “milestone in international criminal law” and an important decision for victims in Gambia.

However, the court deemed that the crimes committed by Sonko did not rise to “aggravated” cases that could have brought the maximum penalty of life behind bars, according to several lawyers who attended the trial.

Sonko, who was in the courtroom for Wednesday’s verdict, offered little reaction when a translation was read out in English, said TRIAL International’s legal adviser Benoit Meystre, who also attended the proceedings.

Activists and legal experts say the verdict could send a message to Jammeh, who fled Gambia — an English-speaking West African country surrounded by neighboring Senegal — and remains in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Sonko — who left Gambia shortly before Jammeh lost power in 2016 — applied for asylum in Switzerland in November that year and was arrested two months later. The indictment filed by the Swiss attorney general’s office in April last year covered alleged crimes over the previous 16 years.

Both Sonko, who is 55, and plaintiffs can appeal to the criminal chamber’s appeals court. His defense lawyer, Philippe Currat, did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Because Sonko has been in custody since January 2017, he would have fewer than 13 years more behind bars if the verdict is upheld.

Among other things, the court found Sonko guilty of the murder of an alleged political opponent in 2000; torture and arbitrary detention in connection with an attempted coup d’état in 2006; the murder of a politician in 2011; illegal detention and torture — including one murder — against peaceful protesters in 2016, according to TRIAL International.

Reed Brody, an American human rights lawyer who attended the trial, said: “The long arm of the law is catching up with Yahya Jammeh’s accomplices all around the world, and hopefully will soon catch up with Jammeh himself.”

Madi MK Ceesay, an award-winning journalist who was once arrested under Sonko’s orders and who testified in the trial, told The Associated Press he was “proud and happy that justice has been served” though he would have liked to see a longer sentence.

Nyima Sonko, the widow of activist Ebrima Solo Sandeng, who was killed by state security agents, said: “What goes around comes around, he (Sonko) deserved it.”

Outside the courtroom, Olimatou Sonko, the defendant’s daughter, told Swiss public broadcaster SRF “it isn’t fair” that the full proceedings of the trial weren’t translated to English from German, which her father doesn’t understand.

Philip Grant, executive director at TRIAL International, said Ousman Sonko was the highest-level former official ever to be put on trial in Europe under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Sonko, who joined the Gambian military in 1988, was appointed commander of the State Guard in 2003, a position in which he was responsible for Jammeh’s security, Swiss prosecutors said. He was made inspector general of the Gambian police in 2005.

He was removed as interior minister in September 2016, a few months before the end of Jammeh’s government, and left Gambia to seek asylum in Europe.

Ousman Sonko is not to be confused with leading politician Ousmane Sonko in Senegal, who spells his first name slightly differently.

Jammeh seized control in a 1994 coup. He lost Gambia’s 2016 presidential election but refused to concede defeat to Adama Barrow, and ultimately fled amid threats of a regional military intervention to force him from power.

Amnesty Switzerland praised a “historic” success for universal jurisdiction in Europe. “Even former ministers can be prosecuted! Victims and their families finally see justice” it wrote on the social media platform X.

Modou Faal, a mechanic living in the Gambian village of Lamin, said the country should move forward after the verdict and was concerned that it would hinder the reconciliation process.

“We can forgive but not forget,” he said.

Astou Bojang, a housewife from Talinding, said she hoped that the verdict will help victims in their quest for justice.

“Time is flying, a good number of victims have passed away and did not have the opportunity to witness what happened today,” she said.

John reported from Serrekunda, Gambia.

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