The Gambia Suspends Executions after International Outcry

President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia announced on September 15 that he will be suspending further executions of death row inmates. [BBC]

In August, President Jammeh had unexpectedly announced all of the remaining forty-eight prisoners on death row would be executed by September, ending the country’s over twenty-five year old moratorium on executions. [BBC The following Sunday, nine prisoners were executed by firing squad without notification of their families. [OHCHR]

Tension within the African Union

The President’s announcement and the subsequent executions were met with outcry from the international and regional community. Before the nine executions, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed its concern that executions would be carried out in violation of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantee the right to life (Article 4) and the right to respect for dignity (Article 5).  The Republic of Benin, which currently holds the chair of the African Union, sent its foreign minister to the Gambia to warn the country not to carry out any executions. [BBC]

Following news of the executions, the African Commission urged the Gambia to observe its moratorium and “take all necessary measures to ensure the remaining prisoners are not executed.”  Condemning the executions as a violation of the Gambia’s obligations under the African Charter, the African Commission stated, “This execution is a set back to the gains made by the State towards the eventual abolition of the death penalty [...]”  In fact, the death penalty had been abolished in the Gambia under former President Dawda Jawara but it was reinstated shortly after President Jammeh seized power in a coup in 1994. 

The executions have also caused conflict between the Gambia and Senegal as two of the executed prisoners were Senegalese nationals. Senegalese Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye warned the Gambian ambassador to Senegal that relations between the two countries would worsen if a third Senegalese prisoner currently on death row in the Gambia were to be executed. [BBC]

International condemnation and threat of sanctions

Condemnation of the executions was not limited to within the African Union.  Catherine Ashton, Foreign Policy Chief for the European Union, threatened to cancel the EU’s aid package to the African nation if the Gambia went through with the executions.  [VOA] Meanwhile, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted that the suddenness of the intended executions was suspicious and that “secretly executing individuals without informing their families’ amounts to inhuman treatment.” [OHCHR] High Commissioner Pillay also expressed concerns over whether some of the condemned individuals had received fair trials.  

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights, also reported that many of the death row inmates are political prisoners, accused of plotting against President Jammeh.  The Gambian government, however, provided an alternative explanation of the executions.  During his initial announcement to end the moratorium, President Jammeh stated, “[...] there is no way my government will allow 99% of the population to be held ransom by criminals.” [BBC]  This sentiment was echoed by Police Chief Yankuba Sonko who argued that the executions would help reduce the crime rate when he said, “the tougher the penalties, the more careful people will be when committing crimes.” [News24]

Despite initial skepticism over the effectiveness of any potential sanctions and condemnations, President Jammeh announced that he would not carry out any further executions because of appeals made at home and abroad. [Voice of America; Slate Afrique (French)]  According to President Jammeh, however, the resumed moratorium may be short-lived, “What happens next will be dictated by either declining violent crime rate, in which case the moratorium will be indefinite, or an increase in violent crime rate, in which case the moratorium will be lifted automatically.” Should President Jammeh decide to once again lift the moratorium on executions, his reasons for doing so will be difficult to verify because the government does not release official crime statistics. [News24]

Movement to abolish the death penalty

The controversy surrounding the death penalty in the Gambia comes at a time when the movement to abolish the death penalty is gaining more widespread support. The African Commission, U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have each called on States to abolish the death penalty or impose a moratorium on any further executions.  These calls for abolition are rooted in the right to life, which is guaranteed in all international and regional human rights treaties and is considered a non-derogable right.  See, e.g., International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 4 (right to life) and 6(2) (non-derogability).  Although these instruments do not explicitly prohibit the death penalty, their monitoring bodies have held that they establish key restrictions on the death penalty, mainly those concerning the due process rights of individuals charged with capital crimes.