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BANJUL (Reuters) - A Gambian court sentenced eight people to death after finding them guilty on Thursday of plotting to overthrow the West African country's government.
Six Gambian army officers, including the former chief of defence staff and former director of the national intelligence agency, were convicted of treason alongside a local businessman and a Gambia-based Lebanese businessman.
Gambia last carried out the death penalty in 1981 before capital punishment was abolished. President Yahya Jammeh reintroduced it in 1995 after seizing power in the former British colony, but no prisoners have so far been executed.
"The prosecutor has proven both ... conspiracy to commit treason, and treason, as charged," judge Emmanuel Amadi said.
"I therefore find the eight accused persons guilty and sentence them to death," he said, after which several of the audience in the packed courtroom fainted. The eight men said they would appeal the sentences.
The ruling came after the Attorney General filed charges in March against seven soldiers and three businessmen, accusing them of smuggling guns and mercenaries from Guinea and elsewhere into Gambia last year as part of a drug-funded coup scheme.
The conspiracy was the second suspected coup attempt against Jammeh's government in less than five years.
The March accusations came after a wave of arrests and sackings of top officials in Gambia, a sliver of land sandwiched between northern and southern Senegal.
Gambia has been a rare example of stability in the region, though rights watchdogs say this has been achieved at great cost to human rights and press freedom.
Last year, Gambia expelled the local representative of U.N. children's fund UNICEF, and Jammeh threatened to kill people who work with human rights groups in the country, a popular destination for British tourists.
Drug smuggling is a growing problem in the region and U.N. officials believe the zone is being used as a trans-shipment point for Latin American cocaine headed for Europe.