Gambia to execute dozens of death row inmates within weeks

Gambia plans to execute all inmates on death row by mid-September, ending a decades-long hiatus during which no prisoners were killed in the West African nation.

Decision alarms human rights groups, including Amnesty International

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, center, is seen during a visit to Equatorial Guinea in 2011. The president has vowed to execute all inmates on death row by mid-September. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Gambia plans to execute all inmates on death row by mid-September, ending a decades-long hiatus during which no prisoners were killed in the West African nation.

President Yahya Jammeh, who says the move will curb the rising crime rate, made the announcement on Sunday during his annual meeting with Muslim elders.

"All those who are guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law," he said, adding that criminals will "get what they deserve" and that those who kill should be killed.

"By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter."

It is not clear precisely how many inmates the decision will affect, as official numbers are not available. The Associated Press pegs the number at around 30, while human rights activists told CNN that 44 people, including two women, were on death row as of last year.

Former government minister and current opposition leader Omar Jallow told the Associated Press that although the death penalty was reinstated in 1995, no prisoners have been executed for decades. Amnesty International, which presently classifies Gambia as abolitionist in practice, says the country's last execution took place in 1985.

"Gambia is a party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights," the human rights group has stated, adding that in 2008, the body monitoring this regional treaty adopted a resolution calling on member states to observe a moratorium on death sentences with a view to abolishing capital punishment.

Unfair trials "commonplace"

Human rights groups have condemned the drastic decree, questioning the country’s record for giving its inmates fair trials.

France wants universal ban on death penalty

The French government, which said it "utterly condemns" Gambia's execution plans in an official statement on Tuesday, has urged the country to move in the opposite direction.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a push for a universal ban on the death penalty will be a top priority for the country's diplomats around the world.

On Thursday, Fabius said he will tell France's ambassadors next week to "wage a campaign in favor of" such a ban. He expects resistance from countries where the death penalty is practiced, such as the United States, China, Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"The president’s statement is in stark contrast to the trend, both in West Africa and globally, towards ending the use of the death penalty," said Audrey Gaughran, the Africa director for Amnesty International, which has called for a retraction.

"Any attempt to carry out this threat would be both deeply shocking and a major setback for human rights in Gambia."

Death sentences are issued in Gambia for a variety of crimes, including murder and treason. Critics argue that the latter is often misused to quell dissent and that, under international standards, the death penalty cannot be imposed for activities of a political nature.

"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 Gaughran.

Jammeh has made similar threats in the past, but Amnesty said the latest order remains "a matter for serious concern."

With files from the Associated Press