Gambia: Rights groups ‘deeply concerned’ over death sentences

By Sanna Camara

Major international human rights groups are expressing deep concern over the sentencing to death of soldiers suspected to have taken part in December 30th attempted military takeover of Yahya Jammeh’s government.

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Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh who came to power through a military coup twenty years ago, had survived eight coup attempts since then. He has changed the constitution from a two-term limit presidency to indefinite term in office

The UN Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International on April 1st and 2nd 2015, in their reaction to the sentencing said serious concerns were raised over fairness of the trials.

Death sentences were imposed against three, while three others were sentenced to life imprisonment.  The Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville said they are ‘deeply concerned’ about the death sentences apparently imposed last week by a military tribunal in Gambia.

A cruel violation of the right to life 

“Death sentences imposed on soldiers accused of participating in December’s attempted coup d’état in Gambia are a cruel violation of the right to life and the right to a fair trial,” Amnesty International said.

The trial, which was held in secret, despite provisions in Gambia’s Constitution and Armed Forces Law stating that proceedings should be held in public, made revelations over severe torture meted to suspects during interrogation preceding the trial.

“A nylon bag was melted on my testes to force information out of me,” a leaked information that emerged during the trial of the suspects, revealed.

To cover such information among other methods of torture, the authorities decided to conduct the trial in camera. The media were also denied access to the trials.

Fairness of the judicial proceedings

“Serious concerns have also been raised about the fairness of the judicial proceedings, particularly in relation to the provision of adequate legal representation, which is also guaranteed under the Constitution,” the UN Human Rights spokesperson has said.

He expresses hope that the six detainees will be allowed to appeal, “as is their right, and we call upon the Gambian Government to maintain its moratorium on the use of the death penalty.”

“Gambia’s justice system is deeply flawed and we have concerns about the fairness of the trial, given that it was held in secret,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

Opposing the death penalty
“Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception. The death penalty is a violation of the right to life and the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Many countries in West Africa are moving away from the use of death penalty and it is disappointing that the Gambia has not followed this trend.”

Reports from the country indicate that the soldiers may have been convicted of treason, conspiracy, mutiny and assisting the enemy. The last executions in Gambia were carried out in 2012, when nine prisoners (eight men and one woman) were executed by firing squad.

In September 2012 President Jammeh announced a “conditional” moratorium on executions, which would be “automatically lifted” if crime rates increased. In March 2015, during a review by a United Nations (UN) human rights body, Gambia rejected recommendations by other states to maintain the moratorium on executions and abolish the death penalty.

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