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Zimbabwe: Death penalty not the solution
Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Herald
Opinion & Analysis

Zimbabwe has been very reluctant since independence to use the death penalty, and the majority of those sentenced to death have had their sentences commuted to life in prison, with the apparent proviso that this does mean the rest of their lives behind bars.

There is a growing group who feel the time has come to formally abolish the death penalty, and this week the supporters of abolition received support from a very influential quarter — the Council of Chiefs.

The chiefs in favour of abolition used traditional arguments, as is their function, but these arguments are frequently reflected in the views of modern proponents of abolition.

Both traditional and modern proponents of the abolition of the death penalty argue that those who kill, even when this is permitted by law, are tainted by the same horror they are trying to deter, that of killing another human.

By hanging those who wilfully take the life of another in order to remove an obstacle, society accepts the argument that killing can indeed solve a problem.

We lower ourselves to the same level as those we hang.

Of course, there are crimes that are so terrible that the perpetrators have removed themselves totally, and forever, from the society of their fellows.

Wilful murder is one such crime and, in certain circumstances, so is treason.

Zimbabwean law acknowledges this by making these two crimes, along with mutiny, the only possible capital crimes. The Zanu-PF Government removed all other crimes from the old colonial list that attracted a death penalty.

The system of safeguards to ensure that murder was indeed the crime committed was also strengthened after independence.

Not only is it impossible to plead guilty to a capital crime, ensuring that the prosecution must prove its case, but appeal is automatic.

Where death sentences are passed and confirmed, judges have to submit detailed reports to the Cabinet and the final decision to execute the sentence or commute the sentence is one for the Cabinet as a whole, not just one person as is common in the rest of the world.

Zimbabwe has probably reached the stage now where the only argument in favour of retaining hanging is that of deterrence. There is a feeling that abolishing the death sentence might encourage those committing robbery or other serious crimes to kill possible witnesses.

But experience in other jurisdictions suggests that so long as non-murderers receive fixed sentences and killers get "life without parole" there is a sufficient gap to deter killing.

What is also important — and Zimbabwe follows this rule — is that the chance of arrest and conviction for a murderer must be high. There are very few unsolved murders in Zimbabwe.

The police pour vast amounts of man-hours by talented detectives into solving murder cases.

That near certainty of arrest, followed by a life sentence, is likely to retain the deterrent. After all, a killer will know he will die in jail.

Whether this is next year on the gallows or in decades to come after a miserable life behind bars is not that important.

What is critical is that we, as individuals and as a society, will relinquish the right to decide who lives and who dies.

We will preserve life and let God dispose. We will rise above the morality of those who believe that killing can solve anything.

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