By Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, West Africa researcher at Amnesty International
*This blog has been adapted from a speech given at an event on 23 August 2013 with 12 other organizations in Dakar, Senegal to remember last year’s executions in the Gambia and to raise awareness of the human rights situation in the country.
A year ago today, I walked into my office in London as any other day. Little did I know that it would be the most intense day in my human rights career so far, when suddenly calls started coming in from families and others who were telling us that nine death row inmates had been executed in the Gambia the night before.
We had been given some warning, as Gambian President Yahya Jammeh had announced his intention to execute “all those on death row” in a speech earlier that month. But even though few things in the Gambia surprise me anymore, I was still in disbelief when I started getting reports that the executions had actually started. I remember not sleeping that weekend as I verified the information over and over again – hoping that I had got it wrong.
The government fell silent for several days. I cannot imagine what the prisoners and their families were going through. The secrecy behind the executions was distressing and appalling. Neither families nor lawyers were notified. The Senegalese government was not notified that two of its nationals were among those put to death.
To this day, the burial site has not been made known despite a UN Human Rights Council resolution on March 2012 calling on states that execute to either return the body or disclose the burial site. When states execute in secrete it compounds the cruelty of the death penalty. The Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture have in the past criticized secretive practices surrounding executions in Belarus, Japan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions called the Gambian executions “arbitrary”, while the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said that “secret executions violate the rights of the convict and family members to prepare for death”, and that “…secrecy and the refusal to hand over remains to families are especially cruel features of capital punishment…”
It is time to recognize that people sentenced to death may have a family and that the human rights of children and other family members are also violated. The death penalty permanently punishes all family members.
Of course we also have other concerns about the lack of respect for due process safeguards around the use of the death penalty. For example, we know that none of those killed had exhausted their appeals despite the Gambian Constitution mandating “automatic appeals”. This means the responsibility is on the government to ensure that appeals reach the Supreme Court. If the detainee cannot afford the services of a legal representative, the government must provide one. We know that there are other irregularities in the individual cases such as the reports that some of the case files are missing from the court rooms, questions around the mental health of Buba Yarboe, one of the executed, and the commutation and reinstatement of Lamin Darboe’s death sentence.
Now there are dozens of other inmates on death row who have had similar irregularities in their cases. In particular Amnesty International is concerned about the case of General Lang Tambang and company, where seven men have been sentenced to death for treason. Their conviction and sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court last year, but questions remain about the evidence produced, reports they were tortured, violations of due process safeguards, and the use of the death penalty in treason cases.
The amount of regional and international pressure following the executions was unprecedented. Amnesty International joined with activists from around West Africa and the world to pressure the Gambian government to admit to the killings and to prevent further deaths. We achieved our initial goals to end the secrecy and stop further executions for the time being when the government finally made a public announcement naming those who were executed and later establishing a conditional moratorium.
Now we call on the Gambian government to:
1) establish a permanent moratorium
2) conduct the overdue review of the death penalty in accordance with the Constitution, with a view to abolition
3) commute all death sentences to terms of imprisonment
4) Disclose the site of burial and return the bodies of those executed, in line with their families’ wishes.
We are very concerned about the example the Gambia’s executions set for the whole of West Africa. However, these incidences are an anomaly and they go against the global and even regional trend towards abolition. Since 2000, for example, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Togo, Burundi, Gabon and Rwanda have all abolished the death penalty.
We need West African and other leaders to stand up against a return to the death penalty. One positive example is that of Abdou Diouf who, as the Secretary General of La Francophonie has put himself squarely behind abolition and specifically called on African countries to ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) aimed at abolition of the death penalty.
We have seen what we can achieve when we work together, and we must continue to speak out against the systemic human rights violations in the Gambia.
The Gambia: One year after the arbitrary executions of nine prisoners, still no justice (Public statement, 23 August 2013)