Is capital punishment coherent with our cultural values?


Last Tuesday, Tanzania joined the world in observing the 15th World Day Against death penalty. The French Embassy in collaboration with a local NGO here in Dar es Salaam, Children Education Society (CHESO) hosted a strong gathering of the anti death penalty activists that included the Tanzania Coalition against Death Penalty and other human rights bodies.

Coincidently, this year’s World Day against Death penalty was observed on the hot heels of President John Joseph Pombe Magufuli’s revelation that he will not sign death warrants for those who would be required to face the gallows.

Death sentence is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It represents unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity. It is irrevocable where the criminal justice is open to errors or discrimination, the death penalty would definitely be inflicted to the innocent.

This years’ function in Dar es Salaam was graced by the presence of the once condemned prisoner, Susan Kigula from Uganda who gave her moving testimony of the pains, physical and psychological torture that she underwent while waiting for the final verdict in the prison before she could be hanged but anyhow, she fought for her way to freedom.

Equally well, there was a stimulating debate from renowned professionals on Corrections and Legal issues on the death penalty where also Kigula took part together with retired Commissioner of Prisons John W. Nyoka, Fulgence Massawe of Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) Marienne Rossi - the Teaching Abolition Manager, Advocate Mkwizu who happened to support the death sentence while Frank Morandi was the moderator of the debate coordinated by Philippe Boncour Counsellor of the French Embassy.

With the Tanzanian President declining to sign the death warrants of those prisoners expected to be executed, is that the right way towards abolishment of this punishment? Yes, but that is not enough, he should have gone a little further.

That is neither an official moratorium nor is it an abolishment of the death penalty whose fate is still undecided in Tanzania. Mwalimu Nyerere stopped endorsing death penalty in 1977 and never did it up to his retirement; that was unofficial moratorium.

In 1986, following the overcrowding of the prisoners on death row as courts continued to hand down the death sentences, President Mwinyi was forced to resume the application of death sentence as there was no official abolition of death sentence.

He stopped it again in 1994 to-date whereas the two president’s tenures, Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete respectively did not use it. With Magufuli’s declaration of not using it during his ten years office; who knows the next President may resume this sanction as long as it is still in our statute books?

The best solution is to officially abolish it as has been done by our neighbours, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi. According to the research paper on the Abolition of the death penalty and its alternative sanctions in East Africa: Kenya and Uganda, it is emphasized that the challenge with our criminal justice does not end up with the institution of a moratorium or with abolition of the death penalty, as the problem of what to do with the most serious offenders remains.

Many countries that instituted moratoria do not create humane conditions for prisoners held indefinitely on death row or substitute alternative sanctions that amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

The potential damaging effect of the life sentence imprisonment is the pain caused by the indeterminacy and uncertainty of release of an offender. The range of psychological and sociological torture and its effects indicate a hopeless situation akin to a “tunnel without light at the end,” hence a slow torturous death.

Is there any linkage between poverty and death sentence? Yes, the world over is faced with the common phenomenon of filling their penal institutions with poor people while the rich ones adroitly avoid imprisonment.

So as for the capital punishment, rarely you can find them in. The rich believe, ‘if they commit a crime, they will not be arrested, if arrested they will not be convicted, if convicted they will acquire earlier release from prison by parole, community service or petition.’

That means, they can easily buy their freedoms through their money! Do you know any example of such offenders? Yes we will be seeing one by one getting out of prisons! For those unlucky con as demn prisoners who land in prison, many of them speak of suicide in preference to death penalty rather than life sentence without parole.

Should we retain death sentences for these poor people? Doing so means perpetuating the hegemony of the rich against the poor. A visit to African countries, their prisons tell the story, and American prisons are flooded by black Americans, Latinos and a few of white extremists.

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya last year commuted 2,747 convicts from death row in a nation that has not executed anyone for about three decades. He also signed pardon warrants to release 102 life sentence convicts.

A mass commutation of prisoners on death row was last signed in 2009 by the then President Mwai Kibaki.and almost 4,000 prisoners sentence to death were put on life sentence. What a great work force that was idling as condemned prisoners.

Convictions for crimes such as treason, murder and robbery with violence can carry the death sentence in Kenya. The UN General Assembly last year adopted its sixth resolution calling for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty with an overwhelming majority.

The continued support for the call suggests that it is just a matter of time before the death penalty is confined to the history books. All in all, death sentence is not acceptable as a legal sanction as it negates the very basic fundamental right to life and does not originate from Africa.

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