The Long Arm of the Law

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Switzerland’s top criminal court on Wednesday sentenced a former Gambian interior minister to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity, a trial that human rights groups hailed as a watershed application of “universal jurisdiction” – a principle that allows the local prosecution of serious crimes committed outside of the country, the Associated Press reported.

The case involves Ousman Sonko, who served as the West African country’s interior minister between 2006 and 2016 during the regime of authoritarian president, Yahya Jammeh, who came to power following a coup in 1994.

Sonko was removed as minister in September 2016, a few months before Jammeh fled the country after losing that year’s presidential elections and refusing to concede.

Swiss authorities arrested Sonko in early 2017, shortly after he applied for asylum in the country.

Prosecutors accused Sonko of supporting, participating in and failing to stop attacks against Jammeh’s opponents: The crimes included murder, torture, rape and unlawful detentions.

Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court convicted Sonko of homicide, torture and false imprisonment, adding that his felonies amounted to crimes against humanity. However, the rape charges against him were dropped.

While prosecutors had asked for life imprisonment, the court ruled that Sonko’s crimes did not rise to “aggravated” cases.

Even so, legal analysts and human rights advocates welcomed the verdict, noting that Sonko was the highest-level former official ever to be put on trial in Europe under the “universal jurisdiction” principle.

They added that the trial was an important step toward justice for victims of Jammeh’s regime, and an important message to the exiled autocratic leader that “no matter what, the long arm of justice can always catch the perpetrator.”

Jammeh is currently living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, which is currently governed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who has been in power for nearly 45 years.

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