Senegal: President Takes On Islamic Groups in Death Penalty Debate

A move to outlaw the death penalty in Senegal has ignited a debate about capital punishment in the country.

"It is my point of view and my opinion that only God has the right to take someone's life," said President Abdoulaye Wade during his Jul. 15 announcement of a bill to ban the death penalty.

"An abolitionist current exists throughout the world today and since I've been at Senegal's helm, I've been asked by NGOs (non-governmental organisations)...and even other countries to get rid of the death penalty," he noted. The bill will soon be submitted to the legislature.

The Coalition of Islamic Associations (Collectif des associations islamiques, CAI) has voiced its opposition to the move.

"It's inconceivable to try to abolish the death penalty in a country that is 95 percent Muslim," says Assane Sylla, a member of CAI - a 30-year-old organisation that includes about 17 Islamic groups - and vice-president of the Islamic Research and Study Circle of Senegal.

"The Koran does not rule out the death penalty. Therefore, we cannot approve abolishing it in Senegal, because it serves as an excellent deterrent," he adds.

Sylla says that according to the Koran, the death penalty ultimately works in favor of life because it prevents a murderer from killing again: "In Islam, the death penalty is only applied when the killer commits a cold-blooded, premeditated act of murder."

CAI fears that abolition of the death penalty will lead to an increase in robberies and murders in Senegal, and it has called on legislators, civil society representatives and other Muslims not to champion the bill.

However, violent crime already appears to have become more common in Senegal over recent years, the existence of capital punishment notwithstanding. Unemployment amongst the youth and poverty also may explain this trend, say analysts.

Human rights organisations and much of civil society have thrown their support behind the bill.

The African Encounter for Human Rights (Rencontre africaine pour la défense des droits de l'Homme, RADDHO) has asked parliamentarians to vote with "one voice" to pass the proposed law.

RADDHO Executive Secretary Alioune Tine applauded the president's decision to put forward the bill, saying it "reconciles Article seven of the constitution with abolitionist practice and culture in Senegal."

"Article seven was approved by the voters in the February 2001 referendum and establishes the sacredness of human life," Tine observed.

These words were echoed by attorney Mbaye Jacques Ndiaye. "The death penalty no longer serves any purpose in our legal repertoire," he said.

"With the constitution adopted by the referendum of January 7, 2001, the Senegalese have implicitly accepted abolition of the death penalty."

The Senegalese Committee for Human Rights (Comité sénégalais des droits de l'Homme, CSDH) has also expressed satisfaction over the bill, saying it brings Senegal in line with the international movement to ban the death penalty.

"The death penalty is an irreparable source of errors which undermine a country's democratic foundations," notes the CSDH, which further describes the application of capital punishment as a "serious blow to the right to life".

According to statistics from the British-based NGO Amnesty International, 118 of the world's countries and territories have, either by de jure or de facto means, outlawed the death penalty. African countries to do so include South Africa, Angola, the Ivory Coast, Mauritius and Mozambique.

Since independence in 1960, only two executions have taken place in Senegal. One was in 1967, when the killer of a parliamentarian and former minister for youth and sports was put to death.

The same year, a second execution took place after an assassination attempt on former President Leopold Sedar Senghor - this during prayers at Dakar's Grand Mosque on Mar. 22, 1967. In spite of numerous pleas from both religious and traditional leaders, Senghor did not grant a pardon to the would-be assassin.

Presently, four people are on death row in Senegal.