Regime keen to make capital punishment easier
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The opposition in Gambia are fighting government plans to make more crimes punishable by death. Under Gambian law, capital punishment can only be meted out to murderers who use violence or poison. But the government is set to hold a referendum to allow the execution of convicts whenever "the sentence is prescribed by law".
A referendum had been expected in Gambia not to broaden capital punishment, but to abolish it.
“It’s very perplexing,” said Amadou Scattred Janneh, an exiled former information minister who is now with the opposition Coalition for Change. “We don’t know why [President Yahya Jammeh] is broadening the death penalty except to find the means to punish his political rivals and to sow greater fear in the population.”
Janneh, who was in 2012 sentenced to life in prison for treason after distributing t-shirts with the slogan "End Dictatorship Now", fears that he would have been executed had the new law been in place.
“[The judge] cited the fact that his hands were tied, that he could not give me a death sentence because there was no violence in my activity,” Janneh remembered. “So this type of change would give President Jammeh and his judges leeway to pass death sentences on people who are involved in purely political matters.”
Some observers believe President Jammeh is cracking down on civil liberties and on the opposition to assert his authority in light of a failed coup that exposed weaknesses in the presidential retinue last year.
In Banjul, the Gambian capital, opposition leader Halifa Salla believes a victory for the "yes" side 75 per cent on a turnout of at least 50 per cent is required to carry the motion would give the regime immense latitude.
"It means the government would be able to [impose] the death penalty for any crime it deems fit, by just passing a bill at the national assembly," Salla told AFP.
Sallah said his People's Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism would "leave no stone unturned" in organising people to vote "no" in the referendum, for which a date has yet to be set.
Although the government has cast the extension of the death penalty as a law-and-order issue, capital punishment is unpopular in The Gambia, according to the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP).
The UDP is not only convinced that the “no” side will win but that voters may use the referendum as an opportunity to register their discontent with the government.
“The death penalty as an instrument of justice is not something that enjoys popular support,” said an exiled UDP spokesperson Karamba Touray. “It’s a deeply unpopular regime because of its record of abuse and violence and terror.”
There are doubts that the referendum will allow citizens – all Gambians aged over 18 are entitled to take part – to express themselves freely. “For the last 20 years no vote conducted in that country has been nor free nor fair,” remarked Touray.
There are also fears that the constitutional change could also affect business.
Opposition activist Janneh noted: “With this change the Jammeh regime would have the final say in terms of who’s eligible to be executed – even people convicted of economic crimes.”
In 2012 the execution of nine convicts by firing squad triggered international outrage, especially in neighbouring Senegal, which had two citizens among those put to death. Lawyers lamented that the men were shot before they were able to appeal against their sentences.
Rights groups estimate that about 30 people are on death row in Gambia but no executions have been announced since 2012.
Jammeh, an outspoken military officer and former wrestler, has ruled Gambia with an iron fist since seizing power in a coup in 1994.
According to the Gambian State House website, he must now be formally addressed as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa”.
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011