Gambian president Yahya Jammeh's reported comments that people sentenced to death in The Gambia will be executed by September must not be acted on, and must be retracted, Amnesty International said today.
President Jammeh made the comments in a televised address broadcast on Sunday evening and again on Monday to mark the Muslim feast of Eid-al-Fitrt.
If executions are carried out in Gambia, it will mark an end of a 27-year period without executions. The last execution in The Gambia took place in 1985.
Amnesty International presently classifies The Gambia as abolitionist in practice, and therefore as one of the 141 countries [more than two thirds of states] worldwide which have abolished the death penalty either in law or practice.
"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 set-back for human rights in Gambia."
"The President's statement is in stark contracts to the trend, both in West Africa and globally, towards ending the use of the death penalty."
This is not the first time President Jammeh has made such threats. In September 2009, he announced that executions would resume to counter rising crime. In October of that year, the Director of Public Prosecutions was reported as saying that all prisoners sentenced to death would be executed by hanging as soon as possible.
While no executions were carried out following these statements, the current threat remains a matter for serious concern.
According to the Gambian government, there were 42 men and two women on death row as of 31 December 2011, 13 of whom had been sentenced during that year. In The Gambia, capital punishment can be imposed for murder and treason.
"Unfair trials are commonplace in the country, where death sentences are known to be used as a tool against the political opposition and international standards on fair trials are not respected", said Audrey Gaughran.
"The number of grossly unfair trails is shocking and an especially serious concern in cases where the death penalty is handed down."
No West African country has executed prisoners in recent years and the death penalty for all crimes has been abolished in Togo in West Africa, as well as in Burundi, Gabon and Rwanda in the last five years.
In July, Benin became the 75th state worldwide to join the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1989, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
Gambia is a party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. In 2008, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the body monitoring this regional treaty, adopted a resolution calling on States Party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights to observe a moratorium on the execution of death sentences with a view to abolishing capital punishment.
During a session of the Commission in Banjul, Gambia, in May 2011, the Chairperson of the African Commission's Working Group on the Death Penalty in Africa, stated that "capital punishment... represents a most grave violation of... the right to life under Article 4 of the African Charter".
Under international standards, the death penalty can only be imposed for crimes where there is an intention to kill which results in the loss of life. According to the United Nations, this excludes the possibility of imposing death sentences for activities of a political nature, including treason, espionage and other vaguely defined acts described as 'crimes against the State'.
For Africa: 38 of the 54 member states of the African Union are abolitionist in law (16) or practice (22), also more than 2 thirds.
An Amnesty International Death Penalty report in 2011 stated:
Thirteen new death sentences were handed down for murder and treason in Gambia in 2011 after often grossly unfair trials, although no executions were carried out.
Seven out of eight people on whom such sentences were imposed in 2010 for plotting to overthrow the government were confirmed by the Court of Appeal in April.
Gambia abolished the death penalty for drug-related offences, which had been extended only in 2010, and replaced it with life imprisonment on 4 April.
Amendments were also made to the Criminal Code Act and the Trafficking in Persons Act 2007, to make them compatible with the 1997 Constitution which contains Article 17(2), prohibiting the death penalty for offences not involving violence, or the administration of a toxic substance, resulting in the death of another person.