Critical Analysis: Uproar Over Gambian Executions

Gambia President Yahya Jammeh (CNN)
Gambia President Yahya Jammeh (CNN)
Gambia President Yahya Jammeh (CNN)

Gambia, a small country in West Africa, was once a leader in its region working towards abolishing the death penalty in law and in practice.  Up until recently, the Gambian government had not executed anyone under the death penalty for about thirty years.  However, on August 19, 2012, President Yahya Jammeh announced implementation of a new execution policy, under which he planned to execute all prisoners on death row by mid-September.  Since Jammeh took power in 1994, Gambia’s human rights record has grown increasingly more dismal.  The government does not tolerate any political opposition, and as such, Jammeh has won every election since 1994.  Amnesty International expressed great concern about this announcement, particularly because Gambia does not follow the international standards for fair trials.  In particular, political opponents do not often receive fair trials.

Within days of Jammeh’s announcement, one woman and eight men were put to death on August 23, 2012, and thirty-nine more wait on death row.  The United Nations spoke out against this action saying that “[t]his stream of executions is a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.”  The United Nations also echoed Amnesty International, saying that the trials that led to these executions were not performed with the requisite transparency.

One political opposition group in Gambia, the National Transitional Council of The Gambia (CNTG), said that they were “planning to create a government in exile in neighbouring Senegal” in the immediate future.  This action was spurred on by the beginning of the death row prisoner executions.  The group’s main goal is to end the reign of President Jammeh, as well as end many of the inappropriate practices involving arresting and convicting individuals.

Due to powerful criticism from many international organizations, as well as the general public in Gambia, Jammeh made an announcement on September 15, 2012 that he was suspending all executions.  Jammeh’s office stated that “what happens next will be dictated by either a declining violent crime rate in which case the moratorium will be indefinite or an increase in the violent crime rate in which case the moratorium will be lifted automatically.”  So, despite this temporary success, the tyrannical rule of President Jammeh continues.  Many recognize the need to continue taking action and are still pushing to prevent the executions from resuming.

Amnesty International remains very involved in this fight against the Gambian executions.  Amnesty’s Gambia researcher, Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, stated that the Gambian National Assembly should take this time to review the use of the death penalty in the country.  Such review is actually required by the Gambian Constitution.  Additionally, Amnesty has expressed concern with political influences over the Gambian judiciary.  Because of these serious concerns, “Amnesty International calls for a transparent review of all death penalty cases without recourse to the death penalty.”  Amnesty continues to lead these efforts and is calling on other organizations to help ensure the definite end of these executions in the near future.

Rachel Sipkin is a 3L and the Training Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.