DAKAR Senegalese President Macky Sall joined international appeals for neighboring Gambia to halt a series of planned executions of death row prisoners, confirming on Tuesday that two of the nine who have already faced the firing squad were Senegalese.
The executions, more of which are planned in coming weeks, have the potential to upset delicate ties between the two poor West African neighbors just as Sall wants Gambian cooperation to end the separatist conflict in Senegal's Casamance region.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh vowed this month to execute all of 40-plus death row inmates by mid-September "to ensure that criminals get what they deserve", drawing condemnation from the African Union, the European Union, Britain, Germany, France and human rights groups.
"Macky Sall calls for an urgent stay of execution for all the cases," a statement issued by his office said after Gambia on Monday confirmed it had executed six civilians and three members of the army for a variety of crimes which it said all involved murder.
Sall said two of those executed were Senegalese and that a third national was still facing the firing squad.
Rights group Amnesty International, said in a statement that the 38 people still on death row faced imminent risk of execution, adding that there were concerns most of them were convicted after unfair trials.
"Some were sentenced after being tried on politically motivated charges and have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment to force confessions," Paule Rigaud, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Africa, said.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, said the executions were a step backward for the West African nation, which has had a 27-year moratorium on the death penalty and abolished capital punishment for drug offences in April 2011.
Heyns also raised concern over the trials and the execution of the sentences.
"According to available evidence the trials did not meet due process safeguards," Heyns said in a statement.
"The executions were carried out in secrecy, away from the public and from the families, and do not meet the requirements of transparency," he said.
Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup, has long faced criticism over his rights record in a country that attracts British sun-seekers with its tropical climate and white beaches.
In common with a number of African states, Gambia has the death penalty but until now has rarely used it. British rights group Amnesty said the last execution there was in 1985.
It is unclear why Jammeh, who won re-election last year in a poll that regional groups said had been marked by intimidation of voters and opponents, is pressing ahead with executions now.
One of Africa's most controversial rulers, Jammeh announced in 2007 that he had a herbal concoction that cured AIDS, but only on Thursdays, a statement derided by health experts.
Senegal's Sall, who saw off incumbent Abdoulaye Wade in a March presidential election, has sought to enlist Gambian cooperation to end a low-intensity separatist rebellion in the Casamance region that skirts Senegal's neighbor.
The insecurity in the region has forced thousands from their homes and killed off most of the once-thriving tourist sector in Casamance that once brought millions of dollars into the Senegalese public purse.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis; Writing by Mark John and Bate Felix; Editing by Michael Roddy)