Yahya’s yo-yo on the death penalty

First they’re all going to be killed in the space of just a few weeks, now they’re out of immediate danger but could be back in the firing line (literally) if the crime figures are bad.

President Yahya Jammeh’s latest gambit on the death penalty in Gambia is, at first view, good news - 38 people on death row in the country are not, following a presidential announcement on Friday, about to be taken out of their cells en masse and put before a firing squad. This, you will recall, was indeed the grim situation following President Jammeh’s infamous kill ‘em all declaration last month,

OK, good. Jammeh had, he said, received “numerous appeals” about this (including over 20,000 from Amnesty supporters via our campaign and SMS network urgent action).

But last Friday’s announcement is also deeply sinister and even has a touch of the bizarre about it. A statement from the president’s office said 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.”

Digest that for a moment. Now 38 people in prison in Gambia are sort of on death row. They’re sort of facing execution. And what about if those crime figures are roughly the same, or just marginally up? Do all 38 then get executed? And how quickly? What about - as is regularly the case in our own country when it comes to crime figures - there’s a dispute about how the figures have been calculated? Or if, after the 38 have been executed, the figures are shown to be wrong?

Quite apart from the question-begging nature of the practicalities, there’s the wider matter of the linkage of the death penalty and crime rates. There’s no reliable proof anywhere in the world that capital punishment is more effective as a deterrent against crime than other punishments. Here the Gambian president’s bizarre decree is taking that arbitrariness and turning into a sort of lethal lottery, making a perverse virtue of it. Surely the lives of 38 people shouldn’t be held in the balance - held in a terrible limbo - as a government either succeeds or fails to tackle violent crime.

The Daily Telegraph has written up the story in a rather colourful way, focusing on the Gambian president’s more outré behaviour. I personally hope he finally listens to reason, lifts this sinister threat and returns Gambia to its former “abolitionist” status. At the moment he seems to be toying with the lives of these prisoners, spooling out their fate with the equivalent of a death penalty yo-yo.

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