Gambia: CJ Talks On the Death Penalty

Photo: RNW/Damien Glez
A cartoon of President Yahya Jammeh holding a human skull.

The chief justice (CJ) has made his first public comment on the burning issue of the death penalty which came in the wake of the execution of nine death row inmates last month, saying that the issue has not been approached from the right perspective.

He said there have been so many issues about how the legal sector functions and that the government has risen up on each occasion to deal with them. The CJ stressed the importance of enforcing laws in any society, saying lack of it leads to failed societies.

Justice Emmanuel Agim was speaking Friday during the swearing-in of three new Judicial Service Commission members at a ceremony presided over by the vice president and minister of Women's Affairs, Aja Dr Isatou Njie-Saidy, at her office in State House.

He clarified that the sentences are not a political issue but the issue of law and that it happens in every other country stressing that The Gambia is not peculiar.

His words: "I think that the most constructive approach should be that if we feel that certain type of sentences shouldn't be in our laws, we generate a right advocacy in a right manner that we can initiate amendments of the law, to reflect what we yearn for. But so long as the law stands the way it is, it will not be right to deviate it. That certainly is not helpful to the course of governance. In governance, it is important that those who support governance should support it constructively and look at issues objectively. We may have our parochial position as human beings and that is natural, but it is important that at some point, we distinguish between our narrow interest, broad national interest and the reality.

We should implore the techniques of amendment of the law as Section 18 is very clear and I expect advocacy groups to rather appeal to the National Assembly, to consider the desirability of continuing with the death penalty. So, if you feel you want to appeal for a presidential discretion in a particular direction, it doesn't go through the process of condemnation but you go through the process of a legitimate appeal to the competent authority that has been serving with the constitutional responsibility and exercise clemency in a most sympathetic way.

I think that should have been there." The CJ recalled that President Jammeh recently raised the issue in the wake of an upsurge in crimes, particularly murder, in the country. He further stressed that criminal justice, like all aspects of justice, must respond to the changing moods of society.

He continued: "It cannot remain static just to suit certain primordial interests. Any law or its enforcement that doesn't respond to growing needs of society certainly will lose its meaning as law. We must remember what led to failed societies and societies that were brought down, which were once prosperous and strong peaceful societies and what caused their collapse, or what caused them to go into crisis that involves large violations of human rights and crimes against humanity.

We should not forget that the major cause of this was lack of effective law enforcement. Once you weaken law enforcement, the legal system will weaken and once there is weakness in the legal system, there will be a collapse of the state structure. So if people engage in corruption and the legal system is not efficient or strong enough to respond to such behaviours, you end up in a climate of impunity."

The CJ reminded the gathering that once there is a climate of impunity, there is danger for that community. "If people kill people or engage in crimes that have the potential of a large-scale destabilisation of a whole society, you now subject it to a weak legal system. So if it cannot really provide a response, then there is an impunity building up and in that case, you will have a system where people will kill people and go without any form of redress," he said.

He further stated that there is need for one to be objective and intellectual in looking at the matter, instead of just coming in an euphoric manner in one direction just to condemn it. "Yes, we might have a different political interest, but we must remember that we have a common interest, that is the interest of the people of this country and peace for The Gambia, the region and by extension the world," he added.

. He expressed the Judiciary's resolve to continue working with the government at all times while expressing gratitude to the government for creating an enabling environment. "We will continue to come to government because that is how the situation demands and we are very grateful that we have a listening government," he said. The CJ explained that the judiciary as the third arm of government doesn't exist as a distinct government, but is part and parcel of government in their quest to complement both the legislature and the executive.

He continued: "It is important that people understand the role of the courts as the latter are there to decide cases according to law and the fact of the case. So, if a court sits in a criminal case, it will deal with the case based on its fact and will levy decision according to law. If an accused person is convicted, the sentence that will be passed is a sentence prescribed by law. So, if the death penalty is prescribed, the judicial officer has no business deviating from the law.

Some of the cases that have death sentences being passed are decisions that were reached according to the law. And good enough, almost all of them went on and appealed at the several levels of appellant courts and all of them failed. In that situation, what is left is for the judgment of the court to be enforced." He also used the opportunity to thank the secretary general and head of the Civil Service for the tremendous support he continues to extend to justice delivery in the country, adding that they have received more attention from him than his predecessors.

Banjul elders

Earlier on, in a similar engagement, the Council of Elders of the City of Banjul also called on the VP Njie-Saidy at her office in State House. The elders, led by Ousman OB Conateh, were at the Presidency to renew their solidarity with President Jammeh as well as appeal for clemency on behalf of the remaining death row prisoners.

Explaining their mission, OB Conateh said what the president has done is the right thing as it was the decision of the supreme laws of the country. While renewing the capital city's unending loyalty to President Jammeh and his government, OB Conateh also appealed for clemency on behalf of the remaining death row inmates. He acknowledged the numerous development projects undertaken by the leadership of the country, which have resulted in transforming Banjul, and thanked him for the move.

Aja Betty Saine, Imam Lamin Bah and Alhaji Bai Chow, all members of Council of Elders of Banjul, thanked the Gambian leader for his dynamism, generosity and love for humanity. The trio, while stressing that what happened was inline with the constitution, used the opportunity to appeal for clemency on behalf of the remaining death row prisoners.

The minister of Interior, Ousman Sonko, while thanking the Banjul elders for their move, reminded them that President Jammeh during his swearing-in ceremony, vowed to defend the Constitution of The Gambia, in order to save life and property. "The Gambia is a blessed country and people should be vigilant to report any crime to the authorities. I want to call on elders to reinforce community policing to tackle some of the negative vices in our societies," he added.

The minister of Presidential Affairs who is also the secretary general and head of the Civil Service, Dr Njogou Bah, told the Banjul elders that President Jammeh has the interest of The Gambia at heart, with a vision to ensure peace and security in the country. He thanked the elders for their continuous support to the Gambian leader in his quest to accomplish his vision.

For her part, VP Njie-Saidy commended the elders for their foresight. "This is what is expected of a good elder. I want to thank you so much for your continuous support and solidarity with President Jammeh," she said. She also spoke about the numerous developments spearheaded by President Jammeh in the city citing the new National Assembly Complex under construction. She thanked the elders once again for the move saying The Gambia is a blessed country thanks to the prayers of the elders.

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