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Gambian ex-minister faces rape, torture charges in long-awaited Swiss trial

A former Gambian minister under ousted dictator Yahya Jammeh went on trial in Switzerland for crimes against humanity in a milestone case where a serial rape victim will testify after a multi-decade wait for justice.

Former interior minister Ousman Sonko becomes the highest-ranking official to be tried in Europe under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows grave crimes to be prosecuted anywhere, said the Swiss campaign group TRIAL International which filed the complaint against him.

Nine Gambian plaintiffs are coming to Switzerland for the hearing at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona.

Binta Jamba, one of the plaintiffs who alleges Sonko raped her multiple times, stood outside the courtroom carrying a sign reading: “Bring Jammeh and his accomplices to justice”.

Sonko, 54, faces charges including murder, multiple rapes, and torture between 2000-2016 in what is Switzerland’s second trial ever for crimes against humanity. He denies the charges.

“It has been a long period of waiting, waiting with anger, and anxiety. But I am very optimistic now and I feel so happy. I am smelling justice,” 67-year-old plaintiff Madi Ceesay said before the trial. He alleges he was detained and tortured under Sonko.

The defendant’s lawyer, Philippe Currat, asked the court to abandon the case, citing problems with the investigations and hearings.

“Since the beginning, I have been stupefied by the way this file has been handled,” he told Reuters. He said some of the evidence in the indictment had been based on secret hearings in Gambia and that interviewees had not been informed of their rights.

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‘STRUGGLING FOR 25 YEARS’

According to the indictment, Jamba was raped multiple times by Sonko between 2000-2002 after he murdered her husband in connection with an alleged planned coup attempt.

Once, in 2005, he held her captive for five days, beating her and raping her repeatedly, the indictment said. She fell pregnant by him twice and he paid for the abortions, according to the charges.

“Me and my family have been struggling with this for almost 25 years now,” she said in a message sent to Reuters before the trial. “Without justice, I will never have peace in my life.”

Currat says he can prove Sonko was abroad during much of the period of the rape accusations.

He will also argue that many of the alleged crimes against humanity, including the rape charges, happened before a relevant Swiss law took effect in 2011 and are not admissible.

Sonko, 54, was arrested in early 2017 in Switzerland, where he was seeking asylum. Jammeh’s 22-year repressive rule ended in January 2017 after he lost an election and was forced to flee.

Sonko could face a life sentence as the maximum possible penalty.

Fatoumatta Sandeng, the daughter of Solo Sandeng, a Gambian opposition activist killed in custody in 2016, said she is eager to look into Sonko’s eyes in court. “If we don’t hold people accountable, things like this will keep happening in Gambia, in Africa, all over the world,” she said.

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By EMMA FARGE

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