Experts praise death penalty amnesties
Geneva - Two UN human rights experts have welcomed a decision by Zambian President Edgar Lungu to commute the death sentences of 332 prisoners to life terms.
The UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Pretoria University professor Christof Heyns, and on torture, Argentine lawyer Juan Méndez, urged the Zambian authorities “to take a step further by removing all reference to the death penalty in the country’s laws”.
Lungu commuted the sentences after his visit to Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, which has a capacity of 51 inmates, but houses hundreds.
“This decision is in line with the trend in Africa - as in the rest of the world - to move away from the death penalty. As the secretary-general of the UN has said, there is no room for this form of punishment in the 21st century,” Heyns said. Mendez said:
“By commuting these death sentences, Zambia puts a stop to mental and physical pain and suffering.”
However, the experts warned of continuing areas of concern regarding the death penalty in Africa.
In Egypt, they noted, hundreds of defendants at a time are sentenced to death in unfair mass trials.
“Even though the execution rate is lower, these trials clearly do not meet international standards,” they said.
Gambia also has a worrying situation, they observed, after abruptly ending a longstanding moratorium and hanging nine people in 2012, it has now been proposed that the number of offences punishable by death be expanded.
“This proposal, if adopted, would be in stark contrast to the trend away from capital punishment elsewhere on the continent,” the two experts stressed.
A ruling of the Constitutional Court led to the abolition of the death penalty in South Africa on June 6, 1995, following a five-year and four month moratorium from February 1990.
South Africa carried out its last execution with the hanging in November 1989 of Solomon Ngobeni who was convicted of robbing and stabbing a taxi driver.
The last woman executed was Sandra Smith, on June 2 that same year, along with her boyfriend Yassiem Harris, after a murder conviction.
The UN independent experts noted that Lungu’s decision supports previous steps towards the abolition of capital punishment in Zambia. A presidential moratorium on the death penalty has been in place since 1997.
However, they called on Zambian authorities to vote in favour of the UN General Assembly’s resolution calling for a global moratorium, rather than abstaining, as they have in the previous four votes.
The special rapporteurs said three-quarters of world states have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.
The same applies to Africa. Last year, only four states are known to have conducted executions.
Earlier this month, Togo became Africa’s 12th state party to the 2nd Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has consistently called for the abolition of the death penalty for the past two decades and has drawn up a protocol to this effect.
“If it is adopted soon by the African Union and opened for ratification, it will give new emphasis to putting the death penalty era behind us,” the UN experts said.
Independent Foreign Service