In a press release last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Mendez, welcomed Zambian President Edgar Lungui's decision to commute death sentences of 332 prisoners to life imprisonment.
The use of the President's discretionary powers to commute the death sentences was hailed as a landmark 1st step, but the UN experts challenged the country to further work to abolish the death penalty and remove "all reference to the death penalty in the country's laws."
President Lungui made a historic visit to the Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison earlier this week and saw first hand the status of inmates in Zambia. Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison was designed with a capacity of 51, but was housing hundreds. It was the 1st time a sitting president had visited a jail in 40 years.
Many crimes are punishable by death in Zambia, such as murder and treason. However, the country has not carried out an execution since 1997.
President Lungui's actions are part of a greater and growing trend in Africa, as Special Rapporteur Heyns explained.
"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."
But recent instability due to Islamism and civil strife in the region has started to reverse this progression in Africa. North Africa in particular has struggled with the death penalty, as terrorism and insurgency have tested the fragile balance of governance.
In the wake of the 2013 Egyptian coup d'etat, Egyptian judges have drawn international outcry over a series of mass trials and sentencing for alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Hundreds were sentenced to death, and "even though the execution rate is lower, these trials clearly do not meet international standards," explained the UN experts.
Another concerning situation in Africa is the Gambia, which ended a long-standing moratorium by hanging 9 people on death row in 2012. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh explained that the executions were a part of a measure to fight the rising crime rates in the country, and recently proposed that the number of offenses punishable by death be expanded.
Many nations that have had long held moratoriums on the death penalty are quietly slipping back into old habits, in the face of increasingly complex transnational conflicts. In the aftermath of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, Pakistan has executed 179 death row prisoners and continues to act on many controversial death penalty sentences. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, is still on death row and continues to be in a state of legal limbo.
However, even relatively peaceful nations struggle to handle this controversial issue. Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals set the execution dates of 3 inmates who had previously challenged the use of the drug midazolam, a sedative that will be used in their lethal injections. In June the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Glossip v. Gross that Oklahoma's use of midazolam as part of its lethal injection protocol does not violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment Also in June, the State Administrative Court of Jakarta denied the clemency appeal of a French citizen sentenced to death on a drug trafficking charge. The appeal was an effort to reverse the original clemency denial made by President Joko Widodo last year.
But despite these difficult and complex situations, the Special Rapporteurs noted that the future of death penalty in Africa is positive.
According to the special Rapporteurs, 3/4 of the world States have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice and the same applies to Africa. In 2014 only 4 States in the region are known to have conducted executions. Earlier in July, the 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.
Moreover, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has consistently called for the abolition of the death penalty over the last 2 decades. The Commission has drafted a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
"These are very significant steps by the Commission, and if the Protocol is adopted soon by the African Union and opened for ratification by African States, that will give a renewed emphasis to the process of putting the era of the death penalty behind us," the UN experts stressed.
Strong leadership is vital to the adoption of a tenacious human rights framework in any region. The recent executive orders by President Lungui are a good sign of the kind of potent leadership that the region needs.
Source: Diplomatic Courier, August 4, 2015
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