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BANJUL, Dec 14 2010 (IPS) - The appeal by the Gambia’s former Chief of Defence against his death sentence for treason is being heard during December. An amendment to the country’s drugs and human trafficking laws could mean many more capital cases come before the courts.
Besides Lang Tombong Tamba and his seven co-accused, the country’s death row holds, among others, Sulayman Bah, convicted of killing his housemate in a dispute over money, and Tabara Samba, a woman who convicted of killing her husband by pouring boiling oil over her.
Yet when it abolished the death penalty in 1981, the West African country was among the first African governments to do so. President Jammeh reinstated the death penalty in 1995 as punishment for murder and treason.
Two dozen people have been sentenced to death in Gambia since then. None have been executed in that time, but neither has anyone been pardoned or had their sentences reduced.
Since Gambian independence in 1965, a death sentence has been carried out only once, when Mustapha Danso was executed for killing the commander of the country’s army, Ekou Mahoney, during a failed coup in 1981.
Baboucarr Ceesay, editor of The Daily News newspaper, says the death penalty has not contributed to reducing the murder rate.
Regarding treason, Ceesay cannot recall a coup attempt during the period when capital punishment was abolished. Since 1995, however, the Gambia has experienced at least four coup attempts since its re-institution.
In October, capital punishment was extended further to punish drug trafficking offences.
Musa Touray, a retired civil servant, says applying the death penalty to drug offences will do little to reduce the spiraling rate of drug trafficking.
“The death penalty is not necessary,” he says, “It is too heavy a penalty. What the government should do is to strengthen its surveillance mechanisms.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has noted that West Africa has increasingly become a transit point for drugs, with traffickers taking advantage of poverty and poor surveillance to move drugs from South America to Europe.
In June, a record two-tonne stash of cocaine was found in the Gambia, with an estimated street value in Europe of just under a $1billion according to newspaper reports.
The Gambia’s amended act states that anyone caught with over 250 grammes of cocaine faces the death penalty if convicted. Those convicted of human trafficking will also face a death sentence.
“The menace of drug trafficking and the activities of major drug lords have started to rear their ugly heads in this jurisdiction in recent times,” Attorney General and Justice Minister Edward Anthony Gomez told lawmakers.
“Therefore this bill seeks to nip the negative developments in the bud by providing sentences which will serve as deterent to anyone wishing to use this country either as a transit or destination point for hard drugs.”
The bill also covers human trafficking, said Gomez. “Both the strategic location of The Gambia as a gateway to the Western world as well as our liberal immigration policy have attracted the attention of unscrupulous persons in using the country as a transit route for trafficking in persons.”
The move immediately drew criticism.
Lawyer Assan Martins said legislators had exceeded their powers, as the Gambia’s constitution rules out a death sentence for offences that have not resulted in the death of another person.
“The fundamental rights and freedom of everybody must be respected as enshrined in the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” he said.
Opposition parliamentarian, Babanding Daffeh of the United Democratic Party challenged media reports that the National Assembly had unanimously passed the bill.
“The ruling party forms the majority in the House, so even when we say no our vote did not count,” he said, “but I was against the death penalty. In my opinion, in as much as we want to curb the drug trade and human trafficking, we should not impose death penalty, but rather emphasise preventing it and re-integrating criminals into the society.”
Gambian president Jammeh has issued several stern warnings of his intent to fight drug trafficking. As he marked the 16th anniversary of his presidency – Jammeh first came to power in a coup in 1994 – he vowed to clamp down on drug smugglers.
“I would rather die than allow some misguided elements to use The Gambia as a drug zone,” Jammeh told the press. He has backed his words with additional funding and equipment for the country’s National Drug Enforcement Agency.
The immense amounts of money involved make stopping trafficking a complicated affair. Among those facing drugs charges are a former chief of the anti-drug agency and four of his staff. A former chief of police and two top military officers are also up on drugs charges; they are additionally accused of attempting to implicate the president himself, saying he gave them the drugs to sell.
The experience of countries such as Thailand do not support the argument that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to drugs traffickers. Thailand continues to record significant trafficking in drugs; the Asian country is now considering dropping the death penalty in line with its human rights obligations.
Martins and Badinding share a concern that innocent people could be executed for crimes they have not committed.
“We need to rehabilitate our criminals,” Daffeh says, “If someone has been convicted, but later found innocent after a death penalty has been carried out, that will be a big blow.”
Martins agreed: “The fear is that an innocent person may also suffer or may end up being a victim. We don’t support anything of collective punishment of both the innocent and the guilty.”
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