International criminal law: former Gambian interior minister appears before the Federal Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity

Bern, 18.04.2023 - Following a criminal investigation lasting more than six years, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) on 17.04.2023 filed its indictment in the Federal Criminal Court (FCC) against Ousman SONKO, interior minister in the Republic of the Gambia from 2006 to 2016. The defendant is accused, in his various capacities and positions, of having supported, participated in and failed to prevent systematic and generalised attacks as part of the repression carried out by the Gambian security forces against all opponents of the regime of the President Yahya JAMMEH. The charges cover a period from 2000 to 2016 and constitute in certain cases crimes against humanity in terms of Article 264a of the Swiss Criminal Code (SCC).

The indictment filed in the Federal Criminal Court contains the following statement of facts:

In July 1994, Yahya JAMMEH, a lieutenant in the Gambian armed forces, led a coup d'état which deposed Dawda JAWARA, the president of the Republic of The Gambia from its independence in 1970. After a transitional period, JAMMEH was elected president in September 1996. There then began twenty years of authoritarian rule marked by the repression of all opposition to his regime.


SONKO, support for JAMMEH's policies
Ousman SONKO (1969) joined the Gambian armed forces in 1988 and was appointed Commander of the State Guard in 2003, a post in which he was responsible for President JAMMEH's security. In 2005 SONKO was promoted to Inspector General of the Gambian police, before serving as head of the Ministry of the Interior from 2006. In September 2016, some months before the end of the JAMMEH regime, SONKO was removed from his position as Minister and left The Gambia for Europe in order to seek asylum there.

The OAG accuses Ousman SONKO of having supported and participated in the repressive policies of President JAMMEH, which in particular targeted political opponents, journalists and alleged coup plotters, and was characterised by the systematic use of torture, rape, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances.

The repression was the result of systematic action taken on the one hand by groups allegedly directly subordinate to the president (National Intelligence Agency [NIA], the Presidential Guard and the special paramilitary unit known as the ‘Junglers' in particular) and on the other by police forces and the prison authorities, who were allegedly subordinate to the Interior Ministry.


JAMMEH's former minister in Switzerland
At the end of November 2016, the OAG was informed by the Federal Office of Police fedpol that the last Gambian interior minister from the JAMMEH era, Ousman SONKO, was located in the canton of Bern. Investigations were immediately carried out. On 25 January 2017, the NGO TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint against Ousman SONKO with the Public Prosecutor's Office in the canton of Bern, which opened a criminal investigation, arrested him and placed him in pre-trial detention, where he has remained ever since. The OAG took over the cantonal criminal proceedings in February 2017 (see OAG press release dated 6.02.2017*).


Systematic and generalised repression of the civilian population
A particular feature of this case is that the defendant's criminal liability, in terms of Article 264k SCC (criminal liability of superiors), does not result solely from direct involvement in the alleged offences, but also from the responsibilities that he had in his capacity as the interior minister, as he was directly in charge of the police and of the prison service.

After an extensive investigation, which involved numerous interviews with the defendant, some forty interviews with complainants, persons providing information and witnesses, as well as six trips to the Gambia made by the team leading the investigation in terms of a request for mutual assistance executed by the Gambian authorities, the OAG filed its indictment in the FCC on 17.04.2023.

The OAG accuses the defendant in particular of having, in the context of five events between 2000 and 2016, participated, ordered, facilitated and/or failed to prevent killings, acts of torture, acts of rape and numerous unlawful detentions.

The OAG will make its final submissions at the hearing before the FCC in Bellinzona. The presumption of innocence applies to the defendant until a final judgment has been issued. With the filing of the indictment, the FCC has sole responsibility for providing further information.


International criminal law in Switzerland
Since 2011, in addition to appeal proceedings ongoing before the FCC as part of the prosecution of a member of an armed faction involved in the civil war in Liberia, around 90 cases have been submitted to the OAG; most have led to decisions not to bring or to abandon proceedings. This was primarily due to a failure to meet the legal requirements (the existence of an armed conflict or the fact that the alleged perpetrators were not on Swiss territory when the proceedings were opened, for example).

Around fifteen criminal proceedings are currently being conducted for war crimes, genocide and/or crimes against humanity, in connection with acts carried out before and after 2011.


The prosecution in Switzerland of crimes against humanity committed before and after 2011
In April 2009, the Federal Council dispatch on the amendment of federal acts for the purpose of implementing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court made reference to the principle of the non-retroactivity of offences under international criminal law. Crimes against humanity became offences under the Swiss Criminal Code on 1 January 2011.

In September 2021, in the context of another criminal case, the Lower Appeals Chamber of the FCC in a landmark decision (BB.2021.141**) held that, within certain time-limits, it was possible to reconcile the ‘non-retroactivity of criminal law provisions in accordance with Article 2 SCC and the political considerations that favour the non-application of a statute of limitations to crimes with a historical dimension, such as genocide and crimes against humanity'.

This press release does not consider whether any distinction should be made between crimes committed before and after 2011. That will be a matter for the court to decide.


Original version of the text in French


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