Zim and the death penalty debate

Mai Sato Correspondent
At the end of 2017, the world watched with keen interest as Robert Mugabe was deposed after 37 years of rule and replaced by President Mnangagwa, who promised a new democracy.

The change of power is also significant for those interested in Zimbabwe’s death penalty policy.

Mugabe, around the time of his departure from office, had plans to resume executions. Advertisements were placed to recruit a hangman – a position that had been vacant since 2005.

President Mnangagwa, on the other hand, has been vocal in his opposition to the death penalty. Significantly, he himself had faced the prospect of being hanged under the government of Ian Smith, against which he fought during the liberation war.

Within four months of assuming office, President Mnangagwa commuted to life imprisonment the death sentences of prisoners who had been on death row for more than 10 years.

I have just written a new report, “12 Years Without an Execution: Is Zimbabwe Ready for Abolition?” that examines Zimbabwean citizens’ attitudes towards the death penalty. It explores what it means to be a “retentionist” or an “abolitionist” in a country that has not executed anyone since 2005 and the potential consequences of abolition.

The launch of the report forms part of a bigger project on the death penalty carried out by The Death Penalty Project, in partnership with Veritas (an NGO based in Zimbabwe) that is funded by the Swiss Foreign Office and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The report indicated that Zimbabweans are ready to embrace abolition if the Government were to exercise political leadership to this effect.

Trend towards abolition
Over the last four decades more and more countries have dropped the death penalty. In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished capital punishment in law or practice. By 2017, the figure had risen to two-thirds of the countries in the world – 142 in total.

The abolition of the death penalty has been boosted by the position of organisations like the Council of Europe and the European Union have taken. The Council of Europe made the abolition of the death penalty one of its priorities, while the European Union made abolition a condition of membership.

There has also been an increase in the number of states in the US that have abolished the death penalty or placed a moratorium on executions.

Public support for the death penalty has declined in the country. In 1994, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. By 2017, the number had dropped to 55 percent.

There is progress in sub-Saharan Africa too. In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Benin ruled that all laws providing for the death penalty were void and death sentences could no longer be imposed. In the same year, Guinea abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.

Now Zimbabwe appears primed to join the trend towards abolition.

Zimbabwe: a de facto abolitionist
Zimbabwe is often referred to as a de facto abolitionist. This is because it hasn’t carried out an execution in more than 12 years. And under the country’s new Constitution adopted in 2013, it restricted the scope of the death penalty.

Changes included abolishing the mandatory death sentence for murder without extenuating circumstances. It also banned the execution of offenders over 70 years of age and those who were younger than 21 (from 18) when they committed offences carrying the death sentence.

While the new Constitution restricted the scope of the death penalty, the policymakers felt that the Zimbabwean public was not ready to embrace complete abolition.

What we found
In our survey, 61 percent supported the retention of the death penalty. But 80 percent of them said that if the Government took leadership in abolishing the death penalty, they would accept it as Government policy.

In addition, it was clear from the responses that support for the death penalty in Zimbabwe is symbolic – 83 percent of respondents weren’t even aware that the country hadn’t carried out any executions for more than a decade. And 45 percent of respondents didn’t know the method of execution (hanging).

 Mai Sato is a lecturer in Criminal Law and Criminology at the University of Reading

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