Rev. Jesse Jackson sits down with Gambian president Yahyah Jammeh on September 18, 2012. (Photo: Butch Wing, Rainbow PUSH Coalition)
In a speech on August 19th marking the end of Ramadan, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia announced his intention to execute the 47 prisoners kept on death row—almost all of them political prisoners. "By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter; there is no way my government will allow 99 percent of the population to be held to ransom by criminals," he said on national television. In the speech, Jammeh cited drug use and homosexuality as specifically “heinous” and “subversive” crimes and pointed to Syria as an example of the chaos that takes over when law and order are disregarded. On August 23rd, nine prisoners, including one woman, were killed by firing squad.
However, on the eve of a visit last week by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jammeh declared a moratorium on executions. During a five hour meeting with the president, Jackson also convinced Jammeh to release four prisoners (including two naturalized American citizens), to indefinitely extend the moratorium on capital punishment, and to allow the United Nations to investigate the suspicious disappearance of a Gambian journalist six years ago. Jackson sat down with the Nation to talk about his trip to the Gambia, human rights and poverty in America.
Ricky Kreitner: What made you decide to travel to the Gambia and seek the release of these prisoners?
Rev. Jesse Jackson: We heard three weeks ago that nine Gambians had been executed—in the history of the Gambia only one citizen had ever been executed—and that 38 more were going to be executed. There was an outcry from human rights groups around the world. I called the president of the Gambia—his prime minister responded, and I said, “Please do not kill them, allow us to come meet with you on humanitarian grounds.” And the president agreed. So we took a delegation to the Gambia last Monday and appealed to him to do two things: first, to put a moratorium on executions, which he agreed to do. Second, there were two Americans in prison, one a Desert Storm veteran who had been in jail for six and a half years, and a University of Tennessee professor who had been in jail for a year and a half, and he was in for life. He pardoned the two Americans who were in prison, and pardoned two Gambians, and declared a moratorium on the executions. That was a victory. It opens the door for releasing more from death row, and moving toward a stronger human rights stance within the Gambia.
Our embassy in the Gambia was supportive but did not have the moral authority to make demands. You can’t very well make the case that he can’t execute in the Gambia when we kill Troy Davis in Georgia, or Wanda Jean Allen in Oklahoma, or Curtis Moore in Texas. We can’t say he shouldn’t lock up innocent people when we, in fact lock up the most innocent people. In today’s paper, North Carolina had 17 innocent people dismissed from federal prison, with just a bus ticket—no underwear, no change of clothes, no nothing, just, “We locked you up, we were wrong, you’re out of here.” That kind of bizarre behavior at home undermines our moral authority around the world. In the end, right makes might in ways that might does not make right.