Gambia, Iraq executions buck worldwide abolitionist trend

Protesters in Senegal denouncing Gambian executions
Human rights advocates the world over have been shocked and outraged by Gambia's first executions in 27 years and an escalation in hangings in Iraq that has already sent 91 to their deaths this year.

GlobalFocusThe rash of executions in the two countries -- nine in Gambia last week and 21 in Iraq on Monday alone -- are particularly disturbing for the targeting of prisoners convicted on what appear to be politically instigated charges in secretive and unfair trials, international law experts said.

Yet as lamentable as the recent death row purges may be to those who monitor and censure human rights abuses, they are in stark contrast to a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty and de facto moratoriums on executions in an ever-larger number of countries.

About two-thirds of the 196 countries tracked by Amnesty International  have renounced the death penalty in law or in practice, the London-based rights champions calculate. That has grown from only 16 countries that had outlawed executions before Amnesty launched its global campaign to eradicate the death penalty in 1977.

"Even in countries like China, while we don’t know how many they have executed, we do know that they have reduced the number of crimes that can be punished by death and they have reduced the number of people executed in recent years dramatically," Christof Heyns, assigned by the United Nations to monitor extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pretoria, South Africa.

On behalf of the world body's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Heyns delivered a message to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh this week to "strongly condemn" the autocrat's proclaimed intent to execute all 48 death row inmates in the tiny West African country by mid-September. Nine were executed last week, Jammeh's government confirmed Monday, and the remaining 39 condemned prisoners have been moved from their cells to the execution site.

Heyns' letter demanded that Gambia refrain from any further executions, calling last week's deaths "a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.” The U.N. agency rebuke joined others from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, European nations and an expression of "great concern" from the United States, which itself ranks high on annual rights agencies' lists of countries with the most executions.

Gambia had last executed a prisoner in 1985, and had adhered to the practice increasingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa of reducing the list of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied as well as the number of capital sentences, noted Sandra L. Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University and founder of its Center for International Human Rights.

Babcock attributes the Gambia executions to "the whim of an unpredictable and, by all accounts, unbalanced dictator," and she sees little threat of Jammeh's crackdown inspiring emulation.

"It's an exception to the general rule that once a nation heads down that path of refusing to carry out executions, that it leads to abolition as a matter of law over time," said Babcock, whose center maintains a database on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

Iraq's mounting zeal for executions is the more disturbing, Babcock said, as many of the 1,000-plus condemned Iraqis were convicted of treason or terrorism, often "thinly disguised justification for prosecuting political opponents."

Iraq has long featured in the dubious ranks of the Top Five countries carrying out the most executions each year. In 2011, China led Amnesty's list with executions estimated at more than 1,000, but it also eliminated the death penalty for 13 crimes that previously could draw the ultimate punishment. Iran acknowledged executing at least 360 people, followed by Saudi Arabia with 82 reported executions, Iraq with 68 and the United States 43.

Despite the rise in executions in some of the most active "retentionist" nations, as the rights groups refer to those that haven't signed on to the international covenant that defines the death penalty as a human rights violation, there are positive trends even in areas where the death penalty long enjoyed broad public support, the law experts said.

The Philippines abolished capital punishment six years ago, and all republics of the former Soviet Union except Belarus have renounced the death penalty or ceased carrying it out. Malaysia and Singapore are reconsidering whether all drug-trafficking crimes should be death-penalty eligible, and China is conducting a review of all death sentences, Babcock said. All of Europe is abolitionist, and most of Latin America -- with the glaring exception of the Caribbean states -- have ceased executions.

The only two highly developed democracies that continue to execute are the United States and Japan, the rights groups note. And abolitionists are regaining traction in Japan that was lost 17 years ago when the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked Tokyo subway riders with sarin gas, killing 13 and poisoning 6,000.

Moving the United States into the execution-free category is going to take time because of the 50 separate state penal codes and popular support for the death penalty in some regions, Babcock said.

But she pointed out that the rising cost of keeping the death penalty on the books in states like California, with 729 on death row, is beginning to make inroads with death penalty supporters who have been unmoved by the moral arguments against the state taking lives.


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 Photo: Protesters gathered outside the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on Thursday to demand President Yahya Jammeh halt the mass execution of prisoners. Two of those executed by Gambia last week were Senegalese, including a woman. The banner reads "Gambia. Stop the reign of fear." Credit: Seyllou / AFP/Getty Images

Nine executed overnight in Gambia, more expected, Amnesty says

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh
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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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

Gambia leader draws reproach for vow to execute all on death row

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh's announcement that all death row prisoners will be executed next month has drawn condemnation from human rights groups and foreign governments.

Jammeh made his vow to break a 27-year hiatus on carrying out capital sentences in an official speech Sunday to mark the Eid-al-Fitr holiday ending the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

"All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law. All punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve," Jammeh said in the speech rebroadcast Monday on national television.

Amnesty International condemned Jammeh's announced plans in a statement issued Tuesday, saying that the execution order "must not be acted on, and must be retracted."

"President Jammeh’s comments are deeply troubling and will undoubtedly cause severe anguish to those on death row and their families,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Africa director. “Any attempt to carry out this threat would be both deeply shocking and a major setback for human rights in Gambia."

Gaughran said trials are notoriously unfair in Gambia and that "death sentences are known to be used as a tool against the political opposition." Rival political parties were outlawed after Jammeh took power in a military coup in 1994. Nominal civilian rule was restored two years later with a new constitution, but political opposition remained suppressed and Jammeh has won all elections since then.

A tiny English-speaking West African nation of 1.8 million surrounded by Senegal, Gambia last executed a prisoner in 1985. It has been "abolitionist in practice," Gaughran said, describing Jammeh's statement as "in stark contrast to the trend, both in West Africa and globally, towards ending the use of the death penalty."

Neither Jammeh nor the African news agencies that reported his vow to execute prisoners in a campaign to fight crime said  how many people are on death row in the country that was a British colony until 1965.

Agence France-Presse, which first reported Jammeh's announcement this week, said it had tallied the number of known death row inmates at 47. Justice authorities in the country, however, put the figure much higher, the news agency said.

Jammeh made a similar threat to resume executions in 2009 that wasn't acted on, Amnesty observed, adding that this week's vow was nonetheless cause for alarm.

British human rights advocates Reprieve denounced Jammeh's plan Wednesday and reissued an analysis by founder and legal director Clive Stafford Smith debunking the "myth" that the death penalty deters crime.

In an official statement issued Tuesday, the French government said it "utterly condemns" the reported execution plans and urged Gambia to maintain its de facto moratorium "with a view toward the definitive abolition of the death penalty."


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Photo: Gambian President Yahya Jammeh arrives on 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

International court gets first African female head prosecutor

Fatou Bensouda was sworn in Friday at The Hague as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, the second person to hold that title, the first African to do so and the first woman.

Bensouda takes the reins at an uneasy moment in the short history of the court. Several of its staffers have been detained for more than a week in Libya after a meeting with the son of Moammar Kadafi led to accusations of spying, despite the court's  insistence that they have immunity.

African leaders have complained that the only cases the court has taken up are against Africans. Some have been loath to turn over Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, wanted by the court on charges of war crimes and genocide.

On top of those political headaches, the court probably will face a financial squeeze as the countries that accepted the court's jurisdiction scrape to survive their own economic crises, leaving it with less money to take on a growing list of cases.

Bensouda has been greeted by experts as exactly what the court needs at this perilous time. As a longtime deputy prosecutor within the court, she is a known and trusted face to the staffers. As a Gambian woman, she is better poised to rebut accusations that the court only targets Africans.

"Will she wave a magic wand and cure all the difficulties that exist at the ICC at the moment? No. Can she bring positive disposition over time to transforming the polluted atmosphere in which the institution has been operating in Africa? Absolutely," Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of the Nigerian national human rights commission, told the Guardian.

And with a softer touch than her predecessor, the firebrand attorney Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Bensouda is expected to ease the tension over surrendering war crimes suspects, help marshal financial support and guide the young institution toward greater maturity.

“She just exudes this warmth that Ocampo didn’t have,” said Michael Scharf, director of the international law center at Case Western University. “I think that will be her secret weapon.”

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