Gambia's autocratic leader has begun acting on his vow to execute all death-row inmates within a month, sending nine to the gallows Thursday night and moving the other 40 or so out of their cells to the execution site, Amnesty International reported Friday, citing reliable sources in the West African nation.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announced in a televised address this week that he would purge death row by mid-September to protect the public by making examples of "criminals."
The executions began late Thursday, Amnesty reported, despite an appeal from the African Union and Gambian civil society groups that accuse Jammeh of abusing the judicial system to punish political opponents.
Three of the nine prisoners who Amnesty said were executed had been convicted of treason, and two were citizens of neighboring Senegal, including the sole female on Gambia's death row. The nine were hanged in what Amnesty said it feared was "a giant leap backward," likely to continue over the next few days.
"President Jammeh should establish an immediate moratorium on the death penalty," said Paule Rigaud, deputy director of Amnesty's Africa program, citing United Nations and African Union commitments on human rights. "We are urging the authorities to immediately halt any further possible executions."
The Civil Society Assns. of Gambia, a coalition of seven human rights groups, said in a report on its website that activists had confirmed that nine executions were carried out late Thursday through early Friday and listed the names of those hanged.
Inmates were rounded up at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, and by Friday morning "the bodies were actually lying in the Mile Two Prison yard," the rights group said.
Banka Manneh, the rights group's chairman, told Agence France-Presse in a report from the Senegalese capital, Dakar, that many of those on death row in Gambia are political prisoners. The condemned include an 84-year-old, eight prisoners with mental illness and eight foreign nationals, Manneh said.
"Given that the Gambia government uses the death penalty and other harsh sentences as a tool to silence political dissent and opposition, CSAG believes that any execution is a further indicator of the brutality with which President Jammeh's regime is bent on crushing political dissent,” Manneh said.
Jammeh came to power in a 1994 military coup and, although civilian rule was ostensibly restored two years later, has won all subsequent elections. Opponents say his electoral victories are achieved through intimidation and stifling of dissent.
Gambia had been observing a de facto moratorium on executions, even though capital punishment remains a legal option for the courts. The tiny English-speaking nation of 1.8 million last executed a prisoner in 1985, Amnesty reported.
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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Gambian President Yahya Jammeh arrives July 15 at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Jammeh vowed this week to execute all death row prisoners by next month. Credit: Simon Maina / AFP/Getty Images