7 April 2010

Zimbabwe: Rethink Death Penalty


Harare — ZIMBABWE must now rethink the death penalty, and be ready to move from the informal moratorium now in place to abolition, replacing this ultimate sentence with life imprisonment, without possibility of release.

No executions have been carried out in Zimbabwe since 2004, and the hangings of that year can be considered a special case, of convicts who murdered a prison guard while escaping from a maximum security prison.

The bulk of those sentenced to death in the past 20 years have seen their sentences commuted by executive action to life imprisonment. And they are rotting in jail, as they deserve to rot.

Independent Zimbabwe has never been liberal with the death penalty. The only crime attracting a death sentence since April 1980 has been murder, for which such a sentence is mandatory if there are no extenuating circumstances.

During the 1980s the criminal law was revised to remove the option of a death penalty for several other crimes, such as rape and robbery, even though no one had been sentenced to death for these in living memory. It still remains an option for treason and certain security crimes, although the only time this was imposed and executed was on a terror gang and they were hanged only after it was found that they had committed murder as well.

Zimbabwean law requires a lengthy process before a death penalty is executed. Not only is the appeal to the Supreme Court automatic from the High Court, but both the trial judge and the president of the appeal court must submit confidential reports to the executive.

And the final decision to hang is made by majority vote in the Cabinet, after all factors have been considered. This majority has always been difficult to get, according to several reports, and becomes harder each year.

There are only two arguments for retaining the death penalty: as a deterrent to would-be killers and traitors, and as retribution by society on those who commit the ultimate crime.

The first argument can now be addressed by fact. The informal moratorium on executions has seen no rise in murder rates. This fits in with experience in other countries.

What is a deterrent for murder is the near certainty of being arrested and convicted, followed by a very harsh sentence. The homicide units of the Zimbabwe Republic Police have an enviable record of solving murders. Teams of detectives work round the clock to hunt down a killer and almost always succeed. There have been only a handful, literally, of unsolved murders since independence.

The evidence is pretty conclusive that life imprisonment would be an adequate deterrent backed by the same magnificent police work.

We acknowledge that South Africa still has a high murder rate but it had a high murder rate when the death penalty was still in force there and that murder rate appears to have more to do with poor arrest rates than the abolition of the death penalty.

The fact that no death penalties have been executed for treason or for very serious security crimes where there has been no murder suggests that these crimes do not need this ultimate deterrent.

Again life imprisonment would act as the same deterrent for this sort of crime, especially as those committing acts of terrorism want to be heroes, not prisoners rotting in jail for the rest of their lives. So long as all in Zimbabwe make it clear that all who commit serious terror crimes will stay in jail for life, then that should have the same deterrent as hanging.

It would still be possible to debate, if Zimbabwe abolished the death sentence, whether those serving full life sentences would be released on a medical certificate once they were within days of death. That tiny mercy would cost nothing, although strong arguments remain that a killer should stay behind bars until he dies.

Some countries, as an intermediate step between using the death penalty and full abolition, have retained the right to impose death sentences for certain crimes in time of war, when circumstances are admittedly different. This is a possible intermediate step for Zimbabwe to take, although we would favour full abolition. Being in the middle of friendly neighbours we are unlikely to ever have to fight the sort of survival war where extreme measures might be needed.

The second argument, that those who kill others deliberately have forfeited their right to life, has always been weaker. It reduces us, the people of Zimbabwe, to the level of the killers, that a death can solve a problem and that some people deserve to die. We must rise above such base feelings.

We concur that the sort of people as have been hanged or sentenced to death since independence have forfeited their right to belong to society. But life imprisonment would be adequate to accomplish that goal.

Arguments put forward in a recent constitutional appeal, that jail is not very comfortable do not hold water. Lifers should not get special treatment in our view.

We acknowledge that the death penalty still has its supporters. But more and more countries around the world are abolishing this sentence and Zimbabwe should join them. It has been shown to be an unnecessary cruelty that we can rise above.

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