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28.08.2012 Gambia

Gambia on edge amid mass executions

The 47-year-old former soldier, who seized power in a 1994 coup, dismissed concerns from the African Union.  By Seyllou (AFP)
LISTEN AUG 28, 2012
The 47-year-old former soldier, who seized power in a 1994 coup, dismissed concerns from the African Union. By Seyllou (AFP)

DAKAR (AFP) - Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh came under attack Tuesday for sending nine prisoners to the firing squad, leaving the tiny nation jittery as another 38 convicts await execution in the coming weeks.

The 47-year-old former soldier, who seized power in a 1994 coup, dismissed concerns expressed by the African Union and rights bodies that had urged him not to carry out his plans and executed a first batch of prisoners on Sunday night.

"We are absolutely dumbfounded by this news," said Alioune Tine of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights.

"It is a case of madness at the head of a country, a paranoiac at the head of Gambia and that is dangerous for Africa," Tine said.

Calling for the "total isolation" of the Gambian leader, who often heaps derision on criticism from the West, Tine urged a halt to meetings of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, which has its headquarters in Banjul.

Gambia's interior ministry announced Monday that nine death row prisoners had been executed by firing squad on Sunday night, a week after Jammeh vowed to carry out all death sentences by mid-September.

Two of those killed, one of them a woman, were Senegalese citizens, and Senegal's President Macky Sall said he "deeply regrets" the killings, in a statement from his spokesman.

"Macky Sall calls on Gambia to urgently suspend all executions," read the statement.

Another Senegalese citizen is still on death row in Gambia, which is surrounded by Senegal except for a strip of Atlantic coast.

Commonwealth spokesman Richard Uku said in a statement the executions were "a matter of grave concern" and urged the government of the former British colony, a member of the 54-state Commonwealth, to renounce its plans.

The European Union has also demanded "an immediate halt" to the executions.

Amnesty International estimates a further 38 prisoners are on death row.

"We are appalled that the Gambian authorities carried out the nine executions and urge them to ensure that no further executions take place," said Paule Rigaud, the rights group's deputy director for Africa.

Jammeh, who has woven an aura of mysticism around himself, dressing in billowing white robes and always clutching his Koran, is accused of ruling the tiniest nation on the African mainland with an iron fist, brooking no dissent.

The president's feared plain-clothes security officers could be seen on the streets of Banjul on Tuesday, and tension was palpable among citizens, who were afraid to talk about the executions lest they be recorded by his agents and punished.

In a televised address to mark this year's Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, Jammeh said: "By the middle of next month, all the death sentences will have been carried out to the letter.

"There is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals."

The regime of the man who says he can cure AIDS is often pilloried for human rights abuses, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and muzzling journalists.

Many top officials have found themselves charged with treason, often related to coup plots which observers have said are a sign of paranoia by Jammeh, who won a fourth term in office in November 2011.

Last year eight military top brass, including the former army and intelligence chiefs and the ex-deputy head of the police force, were sentenced to death for treason.

Jammeh also regularly reshuffles top officials.

On Sunday night state television reported that Education Minister Mambury Nie had been sacked a week after being moved into the portfolio from the foreign ministry.

In the past few months former army chiefs, heads of the navy and presidential guard and other generals have been sacked and deployed as deputy ambassadors around the world.

Prior to Sunday, the last official execution in Gambia was in 1985 and Amnesty International had considered Gambia to be among the 22 of Africa's 54 states that had in practice abolished capital punishment.

The nation of 1.7 million people survives mostly off tourism, luring sun-worshipping Europeans to its sweeping, palm-fringed coastline, and agriculture.

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