By Mustapha K. Darboe with New Narratives
BANJUL, Gambia – In the 22-year rule of Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh, protests were rare. The few who attempted them were brutally crushed by the military. In one of the earliest examples, at least 14 students were killed at a demonstration in April 2000.
So, sixteen years later in April 2016 when Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a political activist affiliated to the main opposition UDP party, bravely led a handful of people demanding electoral reforms to a roundabout on the outskirts of the capital, news spread quickly. Gambians waited nervously for the government’s response.
“Everyone knew there would be consequences,” said Isatou Ceesay, 40, one of the five daughters of Nogoi Njie, one of the protesters. “This was the time of Yahya Jammeh.”
The response came quickly. Police rounded the protestors up and detained them. For forty-eight hours there was no word on their fate. Finally, the UDP announced that Sandeng had been killed. In detention, Njie later told Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, she and the other protestors were severely beaten.
Jammeh was in Turkey at the time but his trusted security chiefs — Sulayman Badgie, commander of the state guards, Ousman Sonko, interior minister, and Yankuba Sonko, police chief, were in charge.
Njie could barely understand English but, she told the Truth Commission, the words she heard Sonko say in what was their first encounter were “take them to the place”. “The place” was allegedly Jammeh’s infamous confession extraction center that housed devices for torture including an electrocution machine referred to by torturers as the “talk true” machine. Whoever goes there, speaks “their truth”, according to many witnesses to the Commission.
Victims will finally see justice done this week in a court 5,000 kilometers away in Switzerland where Sonko is being tried for crimes against humanity. The Gambia has yet to hold most accused perpetrators from Jammeh’s regime to account. In the meantime, Swiss authorities are trying Sonko there where he sought asylum in 2016.
The trial is taking place under the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” which holds that crimes committed against all of humanity know no boundaries and can be tried anywhere regardless of where they were committed. Sonko has denied the charges against him.
Nine victims will act as plaintiffs in the case brought by the Swiss Attorney General with evidence provided by the Truth Commission and Swiss justice activists TRIAL International. Njie was to be the tenth plaintiff, but she died in September at age 53, just four months before she was to testify against Sonko. Her family says she died because of the injuries inflicted on her at Sonko’s orders. Njie traveled to Turkey for treatment for heart problems and spent her final year confined to a wheelchair because of pain in her hip and knees. The trial has now taken on special importance for Njie’s family.
“We hope that our mother will get justice in Switzerland,” said her daughter Isatou. “She was beaten, kicked and maimed. She suffered until she died.”
The family of murdered protest leader Sandeng will testify. Sandeng’s son, 26-year-old Muhammed, is the board chair of the Victim Center, a rights-based advocacy organization established by victims of Jammeh to push for justice for crimes committed during his 22-year rule.
“The trial of Sonko is a step in the right direction,” said Muhammed. “This is setting us on a path to bridging all perpetrators to justice, especially those perpetrators who bear the greatest responsibility. It also goes to show that wherever one may be, you cannot run away from the long arm of justice. This is a strong indication that the world over, people are ready to embrace justice and accountability.”
It is not just Gambians hoping for justice in this case. Among the crimes attributed to Sonko is the 2005 killings of about 44 Ghanaians, 9 Nigerians, 2 Togolese, and nationals of Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal along with a subsequent effort to cover them up. West African governments have also demanded accountability in this case.
Witnesses told the TRRC that Sonko, under Jammeh’s orders, instructed officers to ferry the migrants, who were suspected of being mercenaries, to naval headquarters in Banjul. There they were allegedly violently beaten. Several officers said that it was clear the men and two women were migrants and not mercenaries. The bodies of eight migrants were found brutalized the next morning near “Ghana Town,” a settlement of Ghanaian descendants just outside Banjul. Former Junglers testified that another 40-45 were taken across the border to Senegal where they were executed.
While protests were rare under Jammeh’s rule, news of attempted coups – real or imagined – were frequent. Each time alleged coup plotters were rounded up, in some cases along with family members. Evidence given to the Truth Commission revealed that post-coup interrogations were done by a panel on which sat various security chiefs. The panel allegedly gave orders to the torturers known as “the Junglers”, an alleged hit squad based at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and operating on the orders of Jammeh.
The Commission heard that Ousman Sonko was among the security chiefs. The panel, according to Bunja Darboe, a serving soldier who will testify against Sonko in Switzerland, was notorious for torturing suspects.
“You are saying that Ousman Sonko used these guys (Junglers) to torture the detainees?” asked Essa Faal, the Commission’s lead counsel.
“Yes,” replied Darboe.
“…This was their modus operandi? This is how they did things?” asked Faal.
“Exactly, because they dictate who is to come before the panel and whatever is supposed to happen to anybody, they were always aware of it they were always aware of what was happening,” said Darboe.
“Torture and fabrication of evidence became a system Yahya Jammeh employed using NIA operatives,” said the Commission in its findings. “The fabricated evidence or forced confessions were used to prosecute perceived opponents of Yahya Jammeh to send them to his infamous five-star hotel, Mile II Central Prison, using the justice sector institutions to give it a cloak of legality.”
In September 2016, the unexpected happened. Sonko silently left the country after falling out with Jammeh. The reasons are unknown. At this time, Njie had spent two months in the notorious McCarthy prison. She and the other protestors were freed in December after Jammeh lost elections to Adama Barrow.
Sonko sought asylum in Switzerland but was quickly arrested and placed in pre-trial detention in January 2017 awaiting this week’s trial. Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea where he has since lived in self-imposed exile.
Sonko is now the second person to face crimes against humanity charges under universal jurisdiction laws in Switzerland. The first, Alieu Kosiah, a Liberian war-time rebel commander, was convicted in 2022 and is serving a twenty-year sentence.
Sonko trial raises pressure on Gambian government
After Jammeh’s defeat, the new government established the Truth Commission to examine his alleged crimes. The Commission found at least 600 people were involved in human rights violations and crimes during the 22-year rule of Jammeh. At least 71 were recommended for prosecution. Four— Jungler Amadou Badjie, Musa Jammeh, Tumbul Tamba, and soldier Almamo Manneh —are now dead.
Since 2017, just eight have faced prosecution for Jammeh-era crimes. Yankuba Touray, former local government minister, and seven former officials of the NIA were found guilty in trials run by the state. None came as a result of the Commission’s recommendations.
Sonko is the second Jammeh official to face prosecution in a European jurisdiction. Bai Lowe was convicted in Germany in November 2023. Michael Sang Correa, another alleged Jungler, is scheduled to be tried for torture in the United States in September 2024.
“The universal jurisdiction is narrowing the space for perpetrators,” said lawyer Fatty. “It also gives hope that slowly but surely the perpetrators cannot escape. That they can run but they cannot hide.”
Still, victims say trials in The Gambia are essential to bring true justice.
“It would seem as though those in the Gambian jurisdiction are literally escaping justice,” said Muhammed Sandeng. “We have a lot of Junglers here who are not prosecuted. People overseas are being prosecuted. It can be interpreted as the Gambia is not ready to ensure justice.”
Sonko faces a series of charges ranging from torture, murder and rape to false imprisonment. Only one of those charges – rape – is alleged to have been committed by him alone. All other charges— including the alleged murders of Baba Jobe, Almamo Manneh, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, and the alleged torture of soldier Bunja Darboe, and the April 2016 protesters — are crimes Sonko allegedly committed with other perpetrators. A number of those people still hold public office.
A Sonko successful prosecution, according to Gambian lawyer Abdoulie Fatty, will have serious legal and political implications in the Gambia.
“As for those who are implicated by the evidence against Sonko, as individuals who may have committed serious human rights abuses and violations themselves, a successful prosecution of Sonko will now remove them from obscurity and place them before the full glare of the media, victims, CSOs and the justice system, as persons of huge interest and they will be compelled and dragged into the investigations,” said Fatty.
“Some of them may have evaded the TRRC but the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) that is due to be set up in The Gambia soon will have the legal power to investigate them and make appropriate prosecutorial decisions about them. So, Sonko’s successful prosecution will have far-reaching positive consequences, in widening the net to catch more perpetrators and those who may have slipped through the cracks and were not subjected to the TRRC inquiry.”
Sonko’s trial will end on January 30. A verdict is expected later this year.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.