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The Gambia: President Yahya Jammeh's order to execute prisoners is an assault on human rights progress


 Via CPRA Daily Briefing
In a speech given during celebrations of the Muslim Eid el-Fitr, the Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh announced a plan to have all death row prisoners executed. The subsequent executions sparked worldwide condemnation and lifted the veil on the increasingly authoritarian regime in the Gambia. They are also likely to raise concerns over the country's democratic credentials.

The African Union (AU) and various human rights organisations tried to persuade President Jammeh to abandon this plan, but were unsuccessful. On Sunday 26 August, nine prisoners were hastily executed by a firing squad during the night. Some have argued that President Jammeh could well take advantage of this to rid himself of political figures accused of plotting against his regime.  According to Amnesty International, there are currently 38 more death row prisoners awaiting execution. The US State Department has called on President Jammeh to review the remaining cases and ensure that the Gambia does not stray from its own or from international law, as it is suspected that due process has not been followed in these executions. Two of the prisoners executed on Sunday were Senegalese nationals. Senegalese Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye has formally protested against the executions and has asked Gambian ambassador Mass Axi Gey that the life of a third Senegalese death row prisoner be spared. 

Considering the fact that President Jammeh has thus far ignored the pleas of the AU and many other international bodies, it seems unlikely that the executions will be halted by Senegal's request. As a result President Jammeh's decision is not only further damaging the questionable human rights record of the Gambia, but is also damaging relations with its neighbours. While President Jammeh in the past has announced his ability to cure AIDS and infertility, and has said that all homosexuals will be beheaded, his latest decision still comes as a shock. 

Yet the Gambia hosts the African Court of Justice (sic) [African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)] , and is thus meant to be a hub of human rights, but the plan to keep executing prisoners is a clear indication of the reversal of the human rights progress and a regression in the democratisation process. In addition to this, the Gambia is yet to sign and ratify the 1989 Second Optional Protocol on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is aimed at abolishing the death penalty. Disturbingly, Sunday's events mark the first executions to take place in the Gambia in 27 years. This raises serious questions as to why the President would want to reverse this good record. Unfortunately, the situation does not seem to be unique to the Gambia, as out of 54 African countries only 16 have legally abolished the death penalty to date. 

In addition to the global move to abolish the death penalty, backed by the Second Optional Protocol of the ICCPR, there is an ongoing debate on how, in the rare cases where execution is decided upon, the person should be executed. If lethal injections, which were once thought to be the most humane form of execution, are no longer considered to be all that humane, then death by firing squad (as practiced in the Gambia) is certainly not humane. 

As mandated by their domestic law and the fact that the country did not sign the Second Optional Protocol of the ICCPR, Gambian authorities believe they have the right to continue to practice the death penalty in cases of murder and treason. However, the way in which President Jammeh is going about the executions bodes ill for his country. The Gambia has signed the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but because it has not been ratified it is not legally binding. This is quite concerning as prisoners on death row are often in danger of being subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane treatment. The Gambia will have to amend its domestic law if it does not wish for its image to be irreversibly damaged by this lack of due process and lack of legal protection for prisoners. 

President Jammeh said that he decided to have the death row prisoners executed since he could not allow 99 per cent of the population to be held hostage by one per cent. However, by making this decision, he forced the Gambia back into a global minority of countries that still practice capital punishment. Considering the direct correlation between human rights progress and development, this raises the question over who is really holding the Gambia hostage.

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