Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, pictured in 2011, announced the new execution policy in a speech on state media.

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The executions are a "major step backwards," a U.N. official says

The Gambian president wants all death-row inmates to be executed by mid-September

The small nation is surrounded by Senegal

CNN  — 

The United Nations Tuesday urged the tiny West African country of Gambia to refrain from executing 39 more death-row inmates, after nine others were recently put to death.

“I strongly condemn the executions that took place last week in the Gambia, and call for a halt to further executions,” said Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “This stream of executions is a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.”

The country once had been at the forefront in the region’s efforts to abolish in law and practice the death penalty, with a moratorium on the death penalty for 27 years and the abolition of capital punishment for drug offenses in April 2011, Heyns said.

In fact, the sliver of a nation – surrounded by Senegal and bordering the Atlantic Ocean – had last executed a prisoner about 30 years ago.

But President Yahya Jammeh announced the new execution policy in a speech on state media Sunday that was rebroadcast Monday.

“All punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve: that is, that those who kill are killed,” he said. “By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter.”

Citing what it deemed “reliable sources,” Amnesty International reported in a statement that eight men and one woman were taken from their prison cells Thursday and killed. Three of those allegedly executed had been sentenced for treason, and two of the nine were Senegalese, said the group.

Jammeh took power in a military coup in 1994 and was elected president two years later. Gambia’s human rights record has drawn steady criticism since his election, but the president has won supporters by building new hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.

Heyns said the executions “undermine previous steps towards the abolition of capital punishment in the Gambia.”

“I am concerned that death sentences were imposed in violation of major international standards, including the most serious crimes provisions. According to available evidence, the trials did not meet due process safeguards,” Heyns said. “The executions were carried out in secrecy, away from the public and from the families, and do not meet the requirements of transparency.”