As World Day Against The Death Penalty comes round for the tenth time, memories in Africa of the execution of nine people in Gambia in August are still fresh. A subsequent moratorium was given a guarded welcome.
The regime of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh is known to have a poor human rights record, but the execution of nine prisoners at the end of August still came as a shock to the international community. As Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus from Amnesty International explained, "People are sentenced to death for political crimes, for treason, which is a violation of international standards." She said Amnesty has had reports of torture being used in Gambia and freedom of expression is repressed. "There are a number of human rights concerns we have," she added.
Until August of this year, the last time that Gambia carried out the death penalty was in 1981.
President Yahya Jammeh announced a moratorium but skepticism persists
Yahya Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994. Since then he has sought to root out and silence all opposition. Political opponents are arrested and incarcerated in prisons such as Mile 2 Central. It is a death trap, according to Banka Manneh, chairman of the Civil Society Associations Gambia. The prison conditions are so atrocious that there is a high probability that inmates will either die in prison or shortly after their release. "Mile 2 prison has a system where the food is so bad it gives you what they call beriberi, your whole body starts to swell, you die a very, very horrible death," Manneh said.
Clinging on to power at all costs
Among the nine who were executed in August were two Senegalese citizens. Dozens of people in Senegal protested against the death of their compatriots. Manneh said the purpose of the executions was to intimidate the population. "For one reason or another, Gambians have become somewhat more courageous of late," he said. "They have watched regime change taking place in Senegal and they have also been monitoring the Arab Spring. These events have put Gambians in a thoughtful mood."
Political change elsewhere in Africa is prompting Gambians to think about their own future
The European Union and the United Nations have threatened Gambia with sanctions and called on President Jammeh to abide by international standards. Human rights organisations also strongly condemned the executions.
Such protests appear to have had an impact. A further 28 executions, which were scheduled for the middle of September, have not been carried out. President Jammeh has announced a moratorium and the death sentences have been temporarily suspended. Manneh welcomes the news but remains sceptical. "Knowing Yahya Jammeh, and what he has done in the past, this is a man who doesn't value human life. He could wake up one morning and decide 'you know what - let's execute someone!'"
It is unclear whether the EU will impose sanctions on Gambia now that the moratorium has been announced. On the annual "World Day Against The Death Penalty" on October 10, the EU's Africa experts met to draw up policy proposals for their respective European ministers. An EU spokeswoman said it could be some time before a decision was reached.
This year the "World Day Against The Death Penalty," which was launched by the "World Coalition Against the Death Penalty" in 2002, is marked for the tenth time. Even though more and more countries are abolishing capital punishment, 57 countries still adhere to the practice. Amnesty International says 20,000 people worldwide are currently on death row.