The Gambia faces growing diplomatic pressure to halt execution of prisoners
President Jammeh’s threat to kill all of the country’s remaining 38 death row inmates isolates tiny west African nation
The Gambia is facing growing international isolation after the government claimed it would execute all the country’s death row inmates within the next month. Thirty-eight prisoners, many of them convicted of treason for allegedly plotting against the 18-year rule of President Yahya Jammeh, are facing death by firing squad after he announced the executions in a national address celebrating the Muslim festival of Eid.
Nine prisoners – including one woman and two citizens of neighbouringSenegal – were executed in late August without warning, prompting international outrage and a diplomatic crisis with the Senegalese government.
“This murderous act indicates the resumption of executions [which] confirms the retrograde behaviour and disrespect of human rights of the current regime,” said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights.
A relative of one inmate facing execution told the Observer that his life had become a nightmare since the executions. “These prisoners were arrested with no evidence, tortured for months, convicted in sham trials and are now living in fear of their lives,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for fear that speaking out would lead to his relative being singled out. “Any confidence I had left that the government could not execute innocent people has now been shattered. It’s just a question of getting through every day without him being shot.”
The Senegalese president, Macky Sall, said he was dismayed by the executions, accusing the Gambia of having shown disregard for his government by failing to follow diplomatic protocol. “I have asked the prime minister to summon the Gambian ambassador so as to inform him of the Senegalese position and of our regret at this unacceptable attitude,” Sall said.
According to reports a further dispute is brewing between Senegal and the Gambia over the repatriation of the executed prisoners’ bodies, currently buried at the country’s notorious Mile Two prison.
Jammeh also ignored pleas from the African Union and the British government not to go ahead with the executions. The UK ceased bilateral aid to the Gambia in 2011, but still gives around £8m a year to it through multilateral donations to agencies. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said: “I urge the Gambian authorities to halt any further executions.”
However, Jammeh insisted that the executions would go ahead. “By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter; there is no way my government will allow 99% of the population to be held to ransom by criminals,” he said in the speech, which was broadcast on national television on 19 August.
Many of the death row inmates are military personnel accused of plotting against him. Sources say Jammeh’s personal militia – the notorious Black Black, so called for their black clothing, gloves and balaclavas – are increasingly becoming a rival to the armed forces. “There are now two armies in the Gambia,” said a source, who did not want to be named. “The Black Black began as the president’s secret killing squad, but they have expanded to a dangerous extent and now members of the official armed forces are increasingly under threat.”
The current round of executions in Gambia – a popular tourist destination for British and other foreign visitors – ends a 27-year moratorium on the death penalty in the tiny west African country. It comes as other nations in the region abandon Ivory Coast, Senegal and Togo all having abolished it in recent years.
Other human rights groups have described the situation in the Gambia as “appalling” and have called for an immediate end to the practice of executing prisoners. “One can only imagine the terror the death row inmates and their families are facing knowing that at any moment they could be pulled from their cells and put in front of a firing squad,” said Amnesty International‘s deputy director for Africa, Paule Rigaud.
“Amnesty International remains concerned that many inmates have been convicted after unfair trials where they have not had access to lawyers or an appeals process. Some were sentenced after being tried on politically motivated charges and have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment to force confessions.” said Rigaud.