(CNN) -- Gambia plans to execute all death row prisoners by September, the president said this week, sparking condemnation from human rights groups worldwide.
The tiny West African nation last executed an inmate about 30 years ago.
It is unclear what prompted the change in stance.
By the end of last year, Gambia had 44 people on death row, including two women, according to human rights activists.
Death row convicts will be executed by mid-September, President Yahya Jammeh said in a speech on state media Sunday that was rebroadcast Monday.
"All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned will face the full force of the law," he said. "All punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve: that is, that those who kill are killed ... By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter."
The nation imposes capital punishment for various crimes, including murder and treason, the latter commonly used to stifle dissent in some African nations.
In 2010, British human rights group Reprieve said Gambia had introduced the death penalty for those found with more than 250 grams of cocaine or heroin. It's unclear whether the law still stands.
Amnesty International, the French government and other rights groups condemned the execution order.
"President Jammeh's comments are deeply troubling and will undoubtedly cause severe anguish to those on death row and their families," said Audrey Gaughran, the Africa director for Amnesty. "Any attempt to carry out this threat would be both deeply shocking and a major setback for human rights in Gambia."
International standards on fair trials are not followed in the country, according to Gaughran.
"Death sentences are known to be used as a tool against the political opposition," she said. "The number of grossly unfair trials is shocking and an especially serious concern in cases where the death penalty is handed down."
In 2009, Jammeh made a similar threat to resume executions, but did not act on it, Amnesty said. Nonetheless, the new threat raises concern in the nation, the group said.
The former British colony is surrounded by Senegal and has a population of 1.3 million.
Jammeh took power in a military coup in 1994, and was elected president two years later. The government represses political opposition groups, and the president has won all elections since he came to power. Most of the polls are tainted by allegations of fraud.
Gambia's human rights record has drawn steady criticism since his election, but the president has won supporters by building new hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
CNN's Esprit Smith contributed to this report