“The death sentence is a barbaric act . . . It is a reflection of the animal instinct still in human beings,” once remarked former South African president and Nobel Prize Laureate, the late Nelson Mandela.
He could not make head or tail of why the world was still holding on to capital punishment when humanity tells us that killing, for whatever reason, is wrong.
The veteran human rights campaigner likened punishment by way of killing to a medieval way of instilling discipline in people.
In more condensed terms, what Mandela was promulgating was that the death sentence is inhuman, wild and should, therefore, be abolished.
In the same spirit last week, Zimbabwe’s traditional leaders petitioned the Government to abolish the death penalty. They argued that the death penalty is alien to Zimbabwean culture and is a legacy of the colonial regime.
About 45 chiefs from Mashonaland East and Central provinces unanimously agreed that the capital punishment should go.
The decision was made at a workshop organised by the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO) in Harare last week.
Explaining some of the reasons behind the decision, president of the Chiefs’ Council, Chief Fortune Charumbira, said killing someone because they killed another creates a cycle of violence which can only go on and on.
“We, as chiefs, have concluded that killing is an unacceptable form of punishment. When you kill, you kill only the person and you leave behind the spirit that made him to kill,” he said.
“In our culture, we used to order compensation. The murderer was made to pay several cattle or else an avenging spirit would torment the person.”
Chief Nechombo shared the same sentiments, arguing: “You can kill a murderer but you cannot kill murder.”
So adamant were the chiefs such that in a secret vote carried out at the workshop, 42 chiefs voted for the abolition of the death penalty while only two supported the law and one was undecided.
Chief Charumbira went on to point that Zimbabwe has failed to do any executions during the past decade since Government has not found a suitable person for the job, a testimony that no sane person wants to be associated with the practice.
ZACRO chief executive officer, Mr Edson Chiota, was impressed by the spirit displayed by the traditional leaders in condemning the law.
“The discussion was so mature to the point that almost all the chiefs agreed that capital punishment must be abolished. They believe in appeasement. Chiefs said the act of punishing by killing will not in any way solve the problems of murder in Zimbabwe, hence other forms of punishment must be found,” he said.
Zimbabwe has for the past decade grappled with the death penalty dilemma as it has been failing to carry out any executions.
Resultantly, 117 people are waiting to be hanged with some of them having been on death row for over 20 years.
The development has been widely condemned by civic groups as they are of the view that the long wait has put those given death sentences grave emotional stress. Roselina Muzerengi from Amnesty International gave some of the reasons why civic organisations are advocating for the abolishment of the capital punishment. She said capital punishment is irreversible and could claim lives of innocent people as has often been proved that errors can be made in handing out of judgments. Roselina used an example of a Chinese man who was executed for murdering his wife, only for his wife to resurface about five years later.
“It’s not in line with our culture because an eye for an eye makes the world blind. We have discovered that there are some instances where the judiciary makes wrong judgements and wrongly sentences people to death,” she said.
“After these people are hanged, evidence may show they were wrongly accused but it will be too late since death is irreversible.”
In as much as the issue of abolishing the death penalty continues to command support the world over, it still remains a relatively fluid situation in Zimbabwe. Officials have on record indicated their intentions to put an end to the law but not much progress has been made in doing so. Experts point out that the fact that Government has failed to act quickly on the matter shows how complicated the process is. Research shows that prior to 1991, crimes such as attempted murder, rape, and a variety of offences relating to political violence were punishable by the death penalty.
According to Cornell Law School, in the 1990s there was a period of restriction of the death penalty as Zimbabwe reduced death-eligible offences to murder, treason, and certain military crimes when it passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Research further shows that in 2000, the Genocide Act provided that the death penalty could be imposed for the crime of genocide resulting in death, and in 2004, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act expanded the application of the death penalty to attempted murder, incitement or conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism-related crimes that result in death.
Zimbabwe’s Parliament has, nonetheless, interfered with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence limiting application of the death penalty, enacting constitutional amendments to negate court rulings that have questioned the constitutionality of hanging or held that long stays on death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Section 48 (1) of the new constitution abolished mandatory death sentence as every person has the right to life. However, in Article 2, it says a law may permit the death penalty to be imposed only on a person convicted of murder committed in aggravating circumstances.
The new constitution also bars death sentences for women and men under the age of 21 and those over 70 years.
Law expert Rutendo Mudarikwa said: “The exclusion of certain categories of persons from the death sentence were in line with Zimbabwe’s obligations as member of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. These excluded individuals below 18, pregnant women, intellectually disabled, mentally ill and the elderly,” she said.
“The Con Court has amended this to include all women and has changed the age from 18 to 21. Most of the exclusion can be justified. The exclusion of the mentally ill and those below 21 speak towards the mental capacity and one’s ability to take full cognisant of their actions. A problem comes with the total exclusion of women from execution. The differentiation promotes gender imbalance within the criminal justice system.”
Of the inmates who have been on death row, 15 of them have sought to have the Constitutional Court commute their sentences to life imprisonment.
However, some people who are still mindful of the terrorising trails of Edmund Masendeke, Elias Chauke and Stephen Chidhumo, want the death sentence to stay. After a series of crimes as well as their supposed supernatural ability to escape the maximum prison, Chidhumo and Masendeke became the last people to be hanged in 2004.
Hangman holding the aces
Convicted of armed robbery and murdering a Fairmile Motel Manager in Gweru in 2000, Cuthbert Tapuwanashe Chawira (45) is on death row at the Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
Only one thing is keeping him from the gallows — there is no hangman.
No executions have been carried out for the past 12 years due to the unavailability of a hangman.
Were it not for the unavailability of the hangman, some of the 117 prisoners on death row in Zimbabwe might have been executed by now.
Chawira has since appealed to the Constitutional Court to reverse his and 14 other prisoners’ death sentences.
With the hangman’s job far from being a glamorous profession, it seems few people have risen to take up the post. Zimbabweans are reportedly shunning the job.
The selection and recruitment process for a hangman has, however, been shrouded in mystery, raising questions on Government’s commitment to finding one.
For years now, this publication has been scouting the local media with the hope of coming across an advertisement for the job so as to understand its requirements but that has not happened. There hasn’t been any word on any interviews either.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa is on record stating that no-one will be executed in Zimbabwe.
The VP has been at the forefront advocating for the removal of the death penalty from the country’s statutes.
Given the country’s high unemployment rate, and even the number of murders taking place (which indicate that there are many who could kill for a living), many people are baffled by the Government’s claim that it is failing to find someone for the job.
Mrs Olivia Zvedi, a law officer in the Attorney-General’s Office was quoted in The Herald saying Government is still looking for a hangman.
She said the hangman’s job is not an easy one and people were shunning it.
“This is not a job that one can easily apply for. The State is also in a predicament on how to proceed in the absence of a hangman,” Mrs Zvedi was quoted saying.
Questions sent to Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Permanent Secretary Mrs Virginia Mabhiza, regarding the perks and recruitment process for the hangman had not been responded to by the time of going to print.
Sekuru Friday Chisanyu, the president of the Zimbabwe National Practitioners Association (ZINPA) says Zimbabweans are not keen to take the job for cultural reasons.
He said the indigenous African tradition is against the shedding of blood.
“In the indigenous African tradition, the death penalty is forbidden. The hangman will surely attract the wrath of the avenging spirits of those that he would have executed. It is for the simple reason that Zimbabweans are shunning this post,” Sekuru Chisanyu said.
Sekuru Chisanyu called for the scrapping of the death sentence, arguing that those that are convicted of serious crimes must be sentenced to life in prison.
“In my opinion, it is better to sentence one to life that to kill the person. If a person is in jail, that person can be made productive. Having the death sentence does not mean that murder cases will cease to exist,” Sekuru Chisanyu said.
Pastor Emmerson Fundira of the Jehovah Sharma Ministries said the death penalty should be scrapped.
“The Bible is clear on this one — it instructs us not to kill. There is no reason why a human being should take the life of another being,” Pastor Fundira said.
Over the years, finding a hangman has often proved to be a tall order for many countries.
According to a BBC report, a newly recruited hangman in Sri Lanka resigned in shock after being shown the gallows for the first time. Sri Lanka has not carried out a judicial execution since 1976 but has over 400 prisoners on death row.
The report states that last year alone, three recruits abandoned the job within a year after the previous hangman was promoted to become a prison guard.
Sri Lankans had responded well to the job advertisement with 176 applicants.
The BBC also reported that a former United States executioner is now leading a campaign for the scrapping of the death sentence saying doing so eases his “tremendous guilt”.
Allen Ault, who oversaw deaths via the electric chair in the late 1990s, claimed his campaign to prevent further executions was a way of finding “forgiveness”.
“When you realise … that you just murdered another human being and you were the one that gave the order, you feel totally responsible.”
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