War crimes round-up: Gambian former minister charged in Switzerland, trial against Kosovo ex-president begins
Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt” in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.
“This month, the international community lost one of its legends, Benjamin Ferencz. As the last surviving member of the team of prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz would have been pleased with this month’s round-up – particularly the landmark case of the Gambian former interior minister in Switzerland and the historic trial in absentia of top Syrian officials in France.
Ferencz was a fervent advocate for war crimes accountability, including those committed by his fellow US citizens. As noted by the online publication The Intercept, obituaries in US mainstream media failed to mention that Ferencz strongly believed that top members of George W. Bush’s government, including the former president himself, should have been tried for war crimes allegedly committed during the Iraq war.
At a time where double standards in the area of international justice threaten to undermine the very credibility of its efforts, the tireless voice of Benjamin Ferencz will be dearly missed.”
- Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima
Swiss charge Gambian ex-minister
The Swiss attorney general filed an indictment on 18 April against Ousman Sonko for crimes against humanity. The Gambia’s former interior minister (2006-2016) is allegedly involved in “systematic attacks” against opponents of former president Yahya Jammeh. He’s suspected of crimes going back as early as 2000, including the killing of a political opponent as well as acts of torture that include physical assault and sexual violence. After fleeing to Sweden, he went to Switzerland, where he applied for asylum and was later arrested in 2017 after TRIAL International filed a complaint.
The Geneva-based NGO called it a “crucial milestone for the transitional justice process” in the Gambia, which is grappling with the legacy of the atrocities committed over 20 years of Jammeh’s brutal rule. Since fleeing the West African country in 2017, Jammeh has remained in Equatorial Guinea.
After the conviction of former rebel commander Alieu Kosiah in 2021, this is the second case ever tried by the Swiss federal criminal court in Bellinzona under the principle of universal jurisdiction – a major step for international justice in Switzerland. Sonko is also the highest-ranking individual ever to be tried in Europe under universal jurisdiction. Benoit Meystre, legal advisor at Trial International, said: “It also sends a strong signal that universal jurisdiction is a potent tool to bring high-level perpetrators to justice.”
Kosovo ex-president on trial amid Balkan tensions
The trial against Hashim Thaçi began in the Hague in early April as tensions rise again between Pristina and Belgrade amid failed attempts to normalise relations. The former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and three of its top members face counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the bloody war fought between the separatist guerilla and Serbian forces between 1998 and 1999. The guerilla leaders, which have repeatedly pleaded not guilty, stand accused of a series of acts, including the murder of nearly one hundred civilians who did not take part in hostilities.
After the war, Thaçi became Kosovo’s prime minister and declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. He was elected president in 2016 and stepped down in 2020 to face trial before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. Set up in 2017 to prosecute crimes committed by the KLA, the hybrid tribunals are located in the Hague but are still part of Kosovo’s judicial system. The trial faces strong opposition within Kosovo, where many still consider the KLA commanders national heroes.
French court to try top Syrian officials
French investigators brought charges against Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud for complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The three officials of Bashar al-Assad’s regime are suspected of involvement in the 2013 arrest, disappearance, and death of two French-Syrian civilians, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son, Patrick.
With the support of human rights organisations, the victim’s brother and uncle filed a complaint before the French courts, which have jurisdiction because of the victims’ French nationality. The three defendants will most likely be tried in absentia since their appearance before a court in French territory is considered very unlikely. Two of the three officials are also being investigated in the US for their role in the torture and execution of an American aid worker in 2016. If indicted, it would be the first time the US puts Assad’s senior officials on trial, but apprehending them would also be unlikely.
Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer for the family and the human rights groups, said in a statement: “At a time when the Syrian regime seems to come out unpunished for all the atrocities committed, it is essential that this trial (...) qualifies the regime’s crimes and holds accountable, even by default, its highest officials.”
What else happened?
Facebook sued for fuelling conflict in Ethiopia. A criminal court in Nairobi, Kenya, heard a case against Facebook for favouring hateful and inflammatory content in its algorithm for profit on 19 April. In 2021, a professor from the Tigray minority was gunned down outside his home in Ethiopia’s Amhara region after a series of hate messages on Facebook called for his murder. With the help of regional Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekle, his son is suing Facebook’s parent company, Meta. If successful, the ruling could not only lead to compensation for the plaintiffs but could also oblige the company to change its algorithm. In 2021, Rohingya refugees sued Meta for $150 billion for allowing violence and hatred against the minority in Myanmar to spread on its platform.
Putin’s accountability. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) launched an investigation into the unlawful transfer of children from occupied territories in Ukraine to Russia, one month after the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the government’s children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, allegations that she rejected as false. A report, which will accelerate the investigations, is expected soon.
Salvadoran ex-colonel arrested for war crimes in the US. The US’s migration authorities reported the arrest of Roberto Antonio Garay Saravia over his suspected involvement in war crimes committed during the El Mozote massacre of around 1000 villagers by El Salvador’s military in 1981. During and even after the slaughter, the US provided military aid to the Salvadoran government. An amnesty law from 1993 was only lifted in 2016 by the country’s supreme court, allowing those involved to be investigated and prosecuted.
Last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor dies. Benjamin Ferencz, one of the most prominent figures of international criminal law, passed away at age 103 on 9 April. The American lawyer was just 27 when he became chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials that saw 22 Nazi officials prosecuted after the Second World War. He later played a decisive role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Brazil threatens to sue Volkswagen over slavery claims. The carmaker and the Brazilian prosecution failed to reach an agreement over compensation for workers who had claimed they were forced to work in “humiliating and degrading” conditions, with no clean water or sanitation, on a cattle ranch owned by the firm in the Amazon in the 1970s and 80s when the country was under a dictatorship. A prosecutor told the Guardian he would “take all judicial and extrajudicial measures necessary to seek reparations for the damages caused by the company”.
Civitas Maxima is a Geneva-based NGO that facilitates the documentation of international crimes and pursues the redress of such crimes on behalf of victims who do not have access to justice. Founded in 2012 by human rights lawyer Alain Werner, it has most notably represented victims in landmark cases for atrocities committed during the Liberian civil wars.