By Gift Phiri
President Robert Mugabe has commuted the sentences of 10 of the country’s death row inmates to life imprisonment.
The 10 prisoners, condemned to death, have been spared their lives although government very rarely carries the sentences out — with the last execution taking place in 2004.
“Until three weeks ago, we had 90 inmates who had been sentenced to death but three weeks ago, 10 of them submitted petitions to Cabinet under a provision in the Constitution for the president to exercise his prerogative of mercy where he deems it fit in terms of that provision of the Constitution,” Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa told the national assembly last week.
“Fortunately, the 10 were granted reprieve and their death penalties commuted to life.
“So we now have about 80 or 79 inmates in the death cells,” Mnangagwa said.
Held in solitary confinement in cells close to the gallows, some of those condemned to death have been there for more than a decade, their appeals previously rejected by Mugabe.
Critics have labelled the latest mass reprieve as an attempt by Mugabe to appear compassionate ahead of the upcoming general elections in 2018.
Although capital punishment was codified during British rule, which ended in 1980, evolving jurisprudence and new sensitivities within Zimbabwe have limited the actual practice to the barest minimum.
“We have not been executing inmates sentenced to death penalty for the past 12 years or so. The reason is because we do not have a hanger,” Mnangagwa said.
Zimbabwe’s last hangman retired 10 years ago; there has been no one keen to fill the post.
Human rights group Amnesty International has called for the death penalty to be abolished fully in Zimbabwe.
The new Constitution prohibits the death penalty for all women, as well as men who were under 21 at the time of the crime and those over 70.
It also bans using the death penalty as a mandatory punishment.
Mutasa Central MDC MP Trevor Saruwaka queried whether the constitutional provision sparing men above 70 from the noose does not contradict Section 56 of the Constitution which prescribes equality and nondiscrimination.
“To me, it would appear to be allowing men of a certain age to be killed; already it discriminates against men. Is that provision unconstitutional in as far as that is regarded?” he said.
In a sharp retort, Mnangagwa said: “…I believe that the honourable member was a member of this assembly when we passed the Constitution but he did not raise the issue that the Constitution was contradictory or discriminatory.”
The new Constitution, overwhelmingly approved by Zimbabweans during a national referendum on March 16, 2013, puts greater limits on the use of capital punishment.
Every citizen under the age of 18 is exempt from capital punishment, but men from the age of majority upwards, are liable to the death penalty.
Under the current law, only aggravated murder attracts the death penalty.
Two women on death row have already received stays on their proposed executions after the draft constitution won support in the referendum.
The decision to commute death sentences brings Zimbabwe closer to the growing community of nations that have abolished this cruel and inhuman form of punishment.
At least 89 members of the United Nations appealed to Zimbabwe at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UNHRC UPR) in Geneva, Switzerland last month to reconsider the issue of the death penalty.
Nearly two thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty, with the remaining third facing pressure to discontinue capital punishment. Daily News