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Gambia's conditional moratorium on executions 'not good enough'

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s conditional moratorium on executions of death row prisoners leaves at least 38 people still at great risk of execution, Amnesty International said today.

Last Friday evening (14 September), President Jammeh announced a moratorium on executions as a mid-September deadline set for all death sentences to be carried out neared. In a speech in August Mr Jammeh had said that “all death sentences would be carried out to the letter by mid-September”.

Friday’s statement from the president’s office declared that “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.”

The statement said the president would uphold Gambia’s constitution and domestic laws, but Amnesty is concerned that so far the government has failed to respect its own laws. Gambia’s seriously flawed, ambiguous and inaccessible criminal justice system means that even the lawyers and the families of those on death row are unsure of the status of the legal proceedings in individual cases. The family members of those currently on death row in Gambia have been unable to access the prison or communicate with the inmates.

Amnesty International Gambia researcher Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus said:

“The President’s announcement of a conditional moratorium is simply not good enough.

“Making the lives of those people on death row dependent on developments they have no power over is arbitrary and a violation of their right to life.

“Research shows that capital punishment is not a more effective deterrent for crime than other punishments. Furthermore, we know the Gambian criminal justice system is deeply flawed. It cannot guarantee fair trials and the protection of human rights for all people.
“Making the moratorium permanent, with a view to abolishing the death penalty in law, is necessary to ease some of the anxiety of the death row inmates and their families.”
At least two of the nine prisoners executed in August - Malang Sonko and Buba Yarboe - were killed without legal appeals according to a statement of the Ministry of Interior confirming the nine executions three weeks ago, in violation of international standards and Gambia’s own constitution. The constitution mandates that all inmates sentenced to death must have an appeal that will be considered by the country’s Supreme Court.

Amnesty is also concerned that the judiciary in Gambia is not independent of political pressure and that the use of “confessions” obtained under duress is prevalent.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus added:

“We are continually trying to verify information regarding those who were executed and who are still on death row but the climate of fear in the country makes it extremely difficult to get co-operation from lawyers and other legal professionals.

“It’s been three weeks since the executions, and the government adds to the suffering of the families by not letting them get closure. That’s cruel and inhumane.”

On the evening of Thursday 23 August eight men and one woman were taken from their cells in Mile 2 prison near the capital city, Banjul, and shortly after executed by firing squad. The executions were carried out without prior notification to the prisoners, their families or their lawyers. The government confirmed the executions in a statement by the Ministry of Interior only on 27 August and after substantial international pressure.  

According to the Gambian government, until these executions no executions had been carried out in the country since 1985. Amnesty’s information showed the last execution was in fact in 1981, and the organisation had previously considered Gambia abolitionist in practice.

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