MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to an outpouring of international condemnation over news that Gambia has executed nine death row prisoners. These are the first executions in the tiny West African nation in almost 30 years. Gambia's leader has long faced criticism for his human rights record. In an end of Ramadan speech, he vowed to kill all prisoners facing the death sentence by mid-September, as a way to curb crime. But critics say some of those inmates were jailed without due process for opposing the president.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has the story from neighboring Senegal.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Despite pressure from rights groups, his African peers and Western powers, President Yahya Jammeh has carried out his threat to begin executing inmates on death row. In a statement, the Gambian government said nine were executed by firing squad on Sunday - six civilians and three soldiers.
Amnesty International earlier said the nine were killed overnight on Thursday. Paule Rigaud is Amnesty's deputy Africa director.
PAULE RIGAUD: We are urging the president not to carry out any further executions because this is bringing back Gambia into the small group of countries that execute in Africa. And people on death row were either sentenced for murder or treason and who, indeed, could be political prisoners.
QUIST-ARCTON: Neighboring Senegal says two of those killed were Senegalese. Amnesty International called the executions a hugely retrograde step on a continent where many countries are abolishing capital punishment.
In a rare interview with the BBC last November, Jammeh dismissed accusations that he has silenced dissent and imprisoned his political opponents.
YAHYA JAMMEH: If I don't execute people that have been condemned to death by law, do you think I want to earn a one-way ticket to hell by killing people that have not been tried by any court of law?
QUIST-ARCTON: Yahya Jammeh seized power in a military coup 18 years ago and has since kept a tight grip on Gambia, making alleged coup-plotting a treasonable offence. The one-time army captain has traded his military fatigues for flowing white gowns and claims to be able to cure AIDS. The president says a good leader should remain in power as long as God sees fit.
JAMMEH: I will not bow down before any human being except the Almighty Allah. And if they don't like that, they can go to hell. I don't care what they say.
QUIST-ARCTON: Jammeh won a fourth presidential term in November, in elections the State Department described as neither free nor fair. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concerns over news of the executions.
VICTORIA NULAND: We have regularly called on the Gambia to ensure that it fulfills its international obligations, provides for due process throughout its judicial system. And we have expressed our concerns about the way they do that.
QUIST-ARCTON: President Jammeh says his critics should be aware that Gambia is a sovereign country whose constitution authorizes the death sentence.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.
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