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Gambia frees 2 Americans imprisoned for treason; agrees to halt executions

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 10:47 AM EDT, Tue September 18, 2012
Gambia's President Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, pictured here on July 15, 2012.
Gambia's President Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, pictured here on July 15, 2012.
  • Jesse Jackson appeals directly to Gambia's president for the release
  • President Yahya Jammeh in addition agrees to halt death row executions
  • Rights groups say death sentences are handed down to repress political opposition
  • The Americans were not on death row and had not received death sentences

(CNN) -- Two American citizens serving long prison sentences for treason in Gambia will return to the United States Tuesday night after the Rev. Jesse Jackson made a face-to-face appeal for their release to President Yahya Jammeh.

In a separate concession, Jammeh agreed to halt indefinitely dozens of executions he had originally planned to carry out by mid September, according to Jackson's non-profit Rainbow Push Coalition.

The tiny West African nation last executed an inmate about 30 years ago, but in August the president announced he would have all death row prisoners put to death -- 47 in total.

The pronouncement sparked the outrage of human rights activists around the world and was the catalyst for Jackson's trip "to plead for mercy."

The freed Americans were not on death row.

One of them, Amadou Scattred Janneh, was serving a life sentence for printing and distributing T-shirts critical of Jammeh, according to Amnesty International. The T-shirts bore the slogan "End Dictatorship Now."

Janneh once served as Gambia's minister of information, and also taught at the University of Tennessee.

The second man, Tamsir Jasseh, who served in the U.S. military during Operation Desert Storm, was serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a failed coup against the president.

Jackson traveled to Gambia as a private citizen on a trip sponsored by the Gambian government, which covered his flights and accommodations, said U.S. Ambassador to Gambia Edward Alford.

The U.S. Embassy was not involved in the negotiations.

Gambia, a former British colony surrounded by Senegal, has a population of 1.3 million.

Jammeh took power in a military coup in 1994, and was elected president two years later. The government represses political opposition groups, and the president has won all elections since he came to power.

The nation imposes capital punishment for various crimes, including murder and treason, the latter commonly used to stifle dissent in some African nations.

The country does not adhere to international standards on fair trials, according to said Audrey Gaughran, the Africa director for Amnesty International.

Until this year, none of the executions had been carried out, although Jammeh made a threat to do so in 2009.

But in August, after Jammeh announced he would enforce the executions, nine inmates were killed by firing squad. That left 38, whose lives have been spared after the Gambian president's moratorium on executions was announced during Jackson's visit.

Gambia's human rights record has drawn steady criticism since Jammeh's election, but the president has won supporters by building new hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.

CNN's Jack Maddox contributed to this report

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