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

August 22, 2012 |  2:16 pm

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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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

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