By Wallace Mawire
On 10 October 2016, as the world commemorated the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty , African countries including the SADC region report commendable progress in the abolition of the death penalty.
According to Dr Val Ingham-Thorpe, Director of Veritas in Zimbabwe, at one time most countries in the world killed their criminals for all sorts of crimes. Veritas provides information on the work of the Courts, Parliament of Zimbabwe and the Laws of Zimbabwe and makes public domain information widely available.
“In Britain you could be hanged for stealing a sheep and it didn’t matter whether you were a man, woman or child. If you took a farmer’s sheep you went to the gallows,” Thorpe said.
The death penalty can be defined as the state killing of criminals who have committed serious crimes.
Thorpe said that now we live in more enlightened times and worldwide, most countries have abolished the death penalty.
She said that 102 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 32 have done so in practice.
“Only 58 countries, less than a third retain it,” according to Thorpe.
As of the African scenario, Dr Thorpe says that the picture is similar. She says that of the member states of the African Union (AU), most have abolished the death penalty altogether or have a de facto moratorium.
Only a minority of 17 states are reported to have retained the penalty.
In SADC, it is reported that only three states continue to carry out the death penalty namely Botswana, Lesotho and the DRC. The other SADC member states are reported to have either abolished the death penalty completely or do not carry it out in practice.
In April 2015, while Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was chairman of the AU, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a draft regional treaty, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Abolition of the death penalty in Africa to help AU member states move away from capital punishment and move towards systems emphasising restorative justice rather than retribution.
Like for instance, Zimbabwe has had an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty since 2005 meaning that no-one has been hanged since 2005.
However, the moratorium is unofficial and executions can be resumed at any time. it is reported that the courts have continued to sentence people to death and put on death row. It is reported that the cells where condemned prisoners are kept are packed with prisoners awaiting execution.
According to Veritas, it is estimated that there could be almost 200 prisoners on death row, although official figures are lower. Veritas adds that there are over a hundred murder cases still awaiting trial and some of these cases may result in more condemned people.
Veritas says that Zimbabwe’s constitution allows the law to provide for the death penalty in cases of aggravated murder, subject to certain conditions. The constitution does not impose the death penalty for murder or any other crime. It simply says that a law “may” provide for it, not “must”, but “may”. The constitutional provisions on the death penalty are reported by the law experts to be illogical and inconsistent about the death penalty in Zimbabwe.
Veritas says that it is an anomaly to have the death penalty in an African country which had no pre-colonial tradition of putting criminals to death. It says that traditional law is based essentially on maintaining community relations. It aims at restoring relations between the criminal and his family, on the one hand and the victim’s family and society, on the other. Traditional law sanctions compensation rather than punishment.
It has also been reported that the death penalty does not deter crime. Research from around the world is reported to have shown that the death penalty has no noticeable effect on crime rates.
If the death penalty is not an effective deterrent then it loses its only real purpose and becomes nothing more than a cruel and inhuman punishment, Researchers say.
It now remains to be seen how the African continent at large progresses with this contentious debate and discourse on the abolition of the death penalty.