29 June 2014

Zimbabwe: First Lady's 'Behead Them' Call Dreadful

A recent report in this newspaper where the First Lady Grace Mugabe, in an apparent fit of rage, demanded that rapists be "beheaded", has rekindled the thorny debate on the issue of the death penalty.

Discussion in a pub on this sensitive issue is one thing, while a public speech by the First Lady of a country on the same issue, is quite another!

There is little doubt, from the tone and mood of her utterance, that Amai Mugabe is serious about having people killed for their crimes. So, the likelihood that she will pass on her feelings to the Head of State who passes suggestions into laws, is not very remote.

What this puts this country into is a position where the fight for the abolition of the death penalty is as good as lost.

As it is, the new constitution allows the courts to sentence murderers to death by hanging, although the law now spares women from the finality of the gallows.

Even though, those women that had been sentenced to death before the new constitution was put in place, will still have to face the noose. Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa recently opposed a court application by two women on death row seeking the commutation of their death penalty.

The minister said the current constitution which outlaws the killing of women murderers did not operate in retrospect.

Two death-row inmates, Rosemary Margaret Khumalo and Shylet Sibanda, had approached the Constitutional Court seeking an order directing the Justice minister to take steps to ensure that all sentences of death imposed on women be set aside and substituted with appropriate sentences -- citing the new Charter.

Zimbabwe's new constitution spares all women as well as men under 21 at the time of the crime and the over 70s from the death penalty. It also prohibits the imposition of the death penalty as a mandatory punishment.

Much as it may be the law of the land that murderers may be sentenced to death by hanging, even if it is by cutting their heads off as the First Lady seems to prefer, it is also prudent that such laws be consistent with Section 53 of the same constitution which states that no one may be subjected to "physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

As it is, virtually all death-row inmates are denied this constitutional right, found in Section 53. What goes on at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison where prisoners on death row are kept in solitary confinement is in total violation of this right -- unless the constitution states clearly that once sentenced to death, one's constitutional rights cease to exist!

Exactly three years ago, a depressing story was published about over 50 people waiting to be killed at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

They had been sitting in the solitary confinement of their cells for years, waking up every morning and expecting to be dragged to the gallows.

Nothing is as painful, nor as cruel as subjecting a human being to this mental torture.

These men and women have died many times over and God knows what kind of dreams they have in those dungeons.

No, I do not extend any mercy for these condemned societal outcasts, but still they deserve to receive justice as the society deems -- not to be made to live in perpetual torture.

To begin with, I agree with agitations from various quarters for the abolition of capital punishment for the many humane reasons proffered. But while this battle for and against the death sentence continues, society must have a position on the fate of those awaiting the noose.

Like I have already said, they are dying many times over in their cells. The reason that these death row convicts are not being sent to the gallows is that Zimbabwe is understood to have no full-time hangman.

Sometime in 2010, the Justice ministry flighted an advertisement looking for a hangman. Requirements included that one had to be male, with dexterity, ability to tie the knot, possession of a hard heart and one who has no hesitation or mercy.

It still has not been confirmed whether or not an executioner was finally found, although various rumours over the issue have been flying around endlessly.

If there still isn't one, this may be a mixed blessing for the condemned men. It is a reprieve, but it is also an agonising and indefinite wait on death row in a jail dubbed a "gulag" because of its inhumane conditions.

Zimbabwe's last full-time hangman quit the post in 2005 after hanging two armed robbers, Edmore Masendeke and Stephen Chidhumo who murdered a prison guard while escaping jail.

The job has since remained unfilled, despite unemployment in the country hitting 94% in recent years.

Some death row inmates have languished in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

Their petitions for clemency have been rejected by President Robert Mugabe. Chikurubi Maximum Prison is notorious for its grimy, icy and overcrowded cells infested by lice, maggots and rats.

Although the new constitution legalises hanging of men above 21 and those below 70, and whether or not the First Lady is right in advocating for the beheading of rapists, I still believe human life is sanctified and no person has power or control over another person's life.

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