By Cousin Zilala, Executive Director of Amnesty International Zimbabwe
“As someone who has been on death row myself and only saved by an ‘age technicality’, I believe that our justice delivery system must rid itself of this odious and obnoxious provision.”
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Hon Emmerson Mnangagwa, Harare Gardens, 10 October 2013
I was thrilled when Zimbabwe’s new Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Emmerson Mnangagwa, agreed to speak at our World Day Against the Death Penalty event on 10 October. This day is one of the most important dates in our annual campaigning calendar, and this year Amnesty activists staged a lively march through the capital Harare, ending in Harare Gardens where the local press had gathered.
Condemning the death penalty
The event, ‘We say no to the death penalty’ was designed to contribute to a meaningful debate around public security and the death penalty, so I was even more thrilled when the Minister‘s address condemned the death penalty in strong terms.
Perhaps his words should not have surprised me. In the 1960s, during the war of liberation against a white minority government in what was then Rhodesia, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been part of that liberation struggle, was imprisoned for ‘terrorist’ activities. He was sentenced to death and only escaped the hangman’s noose because he was under the age of 21 at the time.
The 10 October events followed a truly exciting period in our campaign for abolition of the death penalty, during which Amnesty-Zimbabwe staff and activists have experienced many highs and lows.
A golden opportunity
We began 2013 in the final stages of Zimbabwe’s constitution-making process. When that process started in 2009 we saw it as a golden opportunity to end the blight of capital punishment by upping our anti-death penalty work. We organized many campaigning activities, ranging from installing huge billboards in Harare that declared that now was the time to abolish the death penalty, to lobbying members of parties across the political divide.
As the campaign gathered pace, the possibility of ending capital punishment was placed firmly on the agenda, and we felt optimistic as we saw just how much support there is for abolition in Zimbabwe.
A hangman being appointed
But then in February of this year we were shocked by the news that a hangman had been appointed. The post had been vacant since the last execution in 2005. We feared this might signify a step backwards in our campaign, although the Justice Minister did subsequently say that the appointment was a ‘legal requirement’, not an indication that executions would resume. Still, we remain concerned for the fate of the 89 people currently on death row in Zimbabwe.
The new Constitution, enacted in May, brought good and bad news. I was disappointed to see the death penalty retained, but at least its legal scope was reduced. The crimes punishable by death were limited to one – murder “committed in aggravating circumstances” – and mandatory death sentences were outlawed. Women can no longer be sentenced to death, nor can men aged under 21 at the time of the crime or who are over 70. It wasn’t the full removal of the death penalty we had hoped and pushed for, but it was progress – and some reward for all our hard work.
A real chance of abolition
Emmerson Mnangagwa’s speech on 10 October has given us renewed belief that we can achieve our goal. We think there is a real chance that before too long we will be celebrating abolition of the death penalty in Zimbabwe. We’ll certainly be intensifying our work to make sure that happens, so that our country protects everyone’s right to life.