If The Gambia takes measures to fix its judiciary, security services and meet certain other conditions, ex-Interior Minister and the President could be extradited to face justice here in Banjul, experts said.
Benedict Demoerloose, head of Criminal Law and Investigations, TRIAL International, the organisation that indicted Ousman Sonko in Switzerland, said the prosecutor in Switzerland will not have the opportunity to investigate all these crimes that Sonko could be suspected of.
“At later stage when the judiciary and the security services are solidified, why not? The death penalty has to be abolished, among other conditions which will have to make Sonko’s extradition possible. Then we can think of having Ousman Sonko in prison here, facing justice here, and same goes for Yahya Jammeh,” Mr Demoerloose said in an exclusive with this reporter.
He said the Swiss government has limited resources which is why they are currently concentrating on certain crimes which have the potential to go to trial. However, it doesn’t stop The Gambia from taking its part. Prosecution in Swiss doesn’t mean that Ousman Sonko would never be prosecuted for other alleged crimes, he added.
Since his arrest in January, Sonko is held and investigated for alleged crimes against humanity and of torture by the Swiss War Crimes Unit (within the Federal Prosecuting Office). Several parties including victims, witnesses and the accused person have already testified as Sonko’s victims to the Swiss authorities.
If convicted, Sonko could face up to life imprisonment for the alleged crimes he stands accused of.
“The Swiss criminal codes provide for a custodial sentence of not less than five years for crimes against humanity. In especially serious cases, and in particular, where the offence affects a number of persons, or the offender acted in a cruel manner, a custodial sentence of life may be imposed,” he said.
You can read the full interview:
Head of Criminal Law and Investigations, TRIAL International
Ques: You have come down to Banjul to join the coalition to bring Jammeh to Justice (#Jammeh2Justice). Tell us about your organisation?
Ans: TRIAL International is a human rights organisation based in Geneva, with several offices around the world – DR Congo, Nepal, Bosnia. We also have a program around Burundi. So we use the law to fight impunity of the most serious crimes: crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and torture. Together with victims and several regional and international human rights organisations, we are now joining a campaign to bring Yahya Jammeh and his leading accomplices to justice.
How did your office come across Ousman Sonko in Europe?
At the beginning of this year, we found out that Sonko was in Switzerland claiming for political asylum. We started to investigate in order to see if there was some evidence against him of potential involvement in international crimes. We collected reports, articles, and we interviewed experts and victims. We decided to file a criminal complaint against him on the 25th January 2017.
Three days afterwards, he was arrested and put in custody, and the alleged crimes were categorised as torture and crimes against humanity. Since then, he has been investigated by the Swiss War Crimes Unit (within the Federal Prosecuting Office). Several parties including victims, witnesses and the accused person have been already interrogated several times. Victims have been able to tell the abuses suffered and some of them have even come from The Gambia to Switzerland to testify.
Trial process of this nature is different from what obtains in The Gambia. He has been detained since January and being investigated, witnesses testified before prosecution office before even the trial proper…. Tell me how this works?
The criminal proceedings in Switzerland are different from The Gambia. It starts with a criminal investigation, made by the prosecutor together with the police. This stage that is not public. When the investigation is completed, the prosecutor decides if the case is solid enough to go to trial. When he decides to go to trial, he sends the file to the court where the trial is held. However, it is not like here where you have potentially every week of sessions… It is all condensed in two or maybe, three weeks for such a case. The suspect then, if convicted, has the possibility to appeal before the Supreme Court.
The last decision we heard about the case is that the court had found sufficient suspicions of crimes against humanity against Sonko. How soon will the trial itself start?
We are still at an initial stage, the investigation has not yet completed. Several other victims and witnesses are going to be called. How long the investigations of the prosecutor are going to last may be difficult to say, but potentially one more year and then the investigation will be completed. We trust the Swiss authorities to perform a good investigation. In our side, we let them work but we might still provide the authorities with some material evidence.
Sonko has made an appeal against a court decision to deprive him of the cash in his possession when he was arrested. What were the grounds for this denial?
The SwissFederal Court and then the Supreme Court respectively decided that the money seized at the time of the arrest (around D800,000) was going to be awarded to the prosecuting efforts, that he will not be able to use it as he was hoping, to pay his lawyer. The court argued that he has a state-appointed lawyer and legal fees were paid by the state. Sonko meanwhile has appointed another lawyer – an important specialist in international crimes – the possibility exists that this lawyer may become the state appointed one.
Let’s talk about his detention. You have already known that when people get detained here under Jammeh’s rule, they faced all kinds of cruel treatments like beatings; torture, etc. Tell me how is Ousman Sonko is being treated in detention?
I am not in the jail so I cannot tell you what his exact condition is, but what I can tell you is that he is not being tortured. That I know, he has not complained about this. The detention in Switzerland is not a 5-Star hotel as some people might think.
It is quite tough, even more the pre-trial detention. But I think and hope that he is treated fairly because he doesn’t deserve what people were undergoing under his watch [in Gambia]. No human being should ever be mistreated, even alleged perpetrators of torture.
So even as perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the laws of Switzerland respect some basic human rights for them?
Absolutely… that might be difficult to understand for some people, especially the victims. But that is of paramount importance. Starting to mistreat suspects turns us to perpetrators. Respecting their rights turns us into righteous people. Human rights are for all. If they try to go low, we go high.
Have you visited Gambian prisons?
I never visited Mile 2; I passed by it and saw documents, including pictures and footage about it. But mostly I heard chilling accounts of victims. The former Minister of Interior Ousman Sonko should have never let that happen.
So all of those will add to the crimes that he is facing currently?
In Switzerland, the prosecutor will not have the opportunity to investigate all these crimes that he could be suspected of. They have limited resources and they should, I believe, concentrated on certain crimes which have the potential to go to trial.
But then, it doesn’t mean that Ousman Sonko would never be prosecuted for other alleged crimes. This is where The Gambia could take its part. May be not now because some of the conditions are not met, but at later stage when the judiciary and the security services are solidified, why not? The death penalty has to be abolished, among other conditions which will have to make his extradition possible. Then we can think of having Ousman Sonko in prison here, facing justice here, and same goes for Yahya Jammeh.
So based on the gravity of crimes he’s being tried for, what sort of sentence can we expect when he is convicted?
It’s difficult to say at this stage but if he is convicted, torture or crimes against humanity, the incarceration could last for many years. The Swiss criminal codes provide for a custodial sentence of not less than five years for crimes against humanity. In especially serious cases, and in particular where the offence affects a number of persons, or the offender acted in a cruel manner, a custodial sentence of life may be imposed. But we cannot predict the outcome and must not raise expectations for victims. The prosecution has a long way to go.
Thank you for talking to us.
It is my pleasure.