DAKAR — Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh came under attack Tuesday for sending nine prisoners to the firing squad, leaving the tiny nation jittery as another 38 convicts await execution in the coming weeks.
The 47-year-old former soldier, who seized power in a 1994 coup, dismissed concerns expressed by the African Union and rights bodies that had urged him not to carry out his plans. He executed a first batch of prisoners on Sunday night.
On Tuesday amid a chorus of calls to halt further killings, Amnesty International said many of the 38 people "at imminent risk of execution" had faced politically motivated charges and had not been given a fair trial.
"Amnesty International remains concerned that many inmates have been convicted after unfair trials where they have not had access to lawyers or an appeals process," said Paule Rigaud, Amnesty's deputy director for Africa.
"Some were sentenced after being tried on politically motivated charges and have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment to force confessions."
He said in a statement that conditions on death row had reportedly become even worse in the past week with family members unable to contact those inside.
Gambia's interior ministry announced Monday that nine death row prisoners had been executed by firing squad the night before, a week after Jammeh vowed to carry out all death sentences by mid-September.
"We are absolutely dumbfounded by this news," said Alioune Tine of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights.
"It is a case of madness at the head of a country, a paranoiac at the head of Gambia and that is dangerous for Africa," Tine said, calling for the "total isolation" of the Gambian leader.
One man and a woman who were executed were Senegalese citizens, and Senegal's President Macky Sall said he "deeply regrets" the killings.
"Macky Sall calls on Gambia to urgently suspend all executions," read the statement from his spokesman.
Another Senegalese citizen is still on death row in Gambia, which is surrounded by Senegal except for a strip of Atlantic coast.
Commonwealth spokesman Richard Uku said in a statement the executions were "a matter of grave concern" and urged the government of the former British colony, a member of the 54-state Commonwealth, to renounce its plans.
The European Union has also demanded "an immediate halt" to the executions.
Jammeh, who has woven an aura of mysticism around himself, dressing in billowing white robes and always clutching his Koran, is accused of ruling the tiniest nation on the African mainland with an iron fist.
The west African nation of 1.7 million people survives mostly off tourism, luring sun-worshipping Europeans to its sweeping, palm-fringed coastline, and agriculture.
The president's feared plain-clothes security officers could be seen on the streets of Banjul on Tuesday, and tension was palpable among citizens who were afraid to talk about the executions.
In a televised address to mark Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr this month, Jammeh said: "By the middle of next month, all the death sentences will have been carried out to the letter."
The regime of the man who says he can cure AIDS is often pilloried for human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, torture and muzzling journalists.
Many top officials have found themselves charged with treason, often related to coup plots which observers have said are a sign of paranoia by Jammeh, who won a fourth term in office in November 2011.
"Amnesty International has noted that in the past two years the number of death sentences handed down has increased," read a statement from the rights body.
Last year eight military top brass, including the former army and intelligence chiefs and the ex-deputy head of the police force, were sentenced to death for treason.
Jammeh also regularly reshuffles top officials.
On Sunday night state television reported that Education Minister Mambury Nie had been sacked a week after being moved from the foreign ministry.
In the past few months former army chiefs, heads of the navy and presidential guard and other generals have been sacked and deployed as deputy ambassadors around the world.
Prior to Sunday, the last official execution in Gambia was in 1985 and Amnesty International had considered Gambia to be among the 22 of Africa's 54 states that had in practice abolished capital punishment.
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