In late August nine death row inmates in Gambia were executed. President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled Gambia since a coup in 1994, has ordered all those sentenced to death to be killed by mid-September. Although the decision has faced international outcry, the Gambian government still seems determined to execute the remaining thirty eight prisoners.
Gambia has a horrifying human rights record. Not only have there have been repeated allegations of torture at the hands of police and prison officers and detention of political opponents, but in recent days two journalists have been detained and charged simply for trying to organise peaceful protests against the killings. As Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Amnesty International’s West Africa Researcher, said, “This is yet another example of the Gambian government’s total intolerance of criticism.”
In April fifteen men were arrested because they were “suspected of homosexuality”. Gambia is hugely intolerant of gay people. Being in a same sex relationship can face up to fourteen years in prison. Furthermore, at one point in time President Jammeh vowed to behead all homosexuals.
President Jammeh has revealed his misunderstanding of human rights, not only through his actions but through his words:
“We know what human rights are. Human beings of the same sex cannot marry or date [...] If you think it is human rights to destroy our culture, you are making a great mistake because if you are in the Gambia, you are in the wrong place then.”
The latest abuse of human rights, the proposed execution of all death penalty prisoners, is very worrying. According to Amnesty International:
“Many have been sentenced to death after unfair or politically-motivated trials. Due process safeguards are frequently not observed – many people sentenced to death have not had access to legal advice or have not been able to pursue a proper appeals process.”
As Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Africa Paule Rigaud says, “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.”
It is the case that treason is one of the crimes that warrants the death penalty. Three of those killed were convicted of treason and observers have argued that Jammeh is increasingly paranoid. The ‘coup’ attempts people have been convicted for may not have actually happened.
The turn Gambia has taken is very different to the trend of capital punishment use across Africa. In recent years Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Togo, Burundi, Gabon and Rwanda have all ended the death penalty for any crime.
Internationally there has also been progress. In 1977 there were only 16 countries in the world that didn’t have the death penalty for any crime. Since 2010 there have at least been 96 countries that do not use the death penalty.