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rights groups to resume talks on rights body
Stanley Kwenda, Inter Press Service (IPS)
February 27, 2007
- Zimbabwean rights activists are campaigning with unprecedented
vigour for an end to the death penalty as the country’s political
and economic crisis deepens, arguing that this is essential for
an open debate on the nation’s future and its joining the "civilised
democracies of the world".
"The death penalty is a threat to freedom
of speech," Edson Chiota, the national coordinator of the Zimbabwe
Association for Crime prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders
(ZACRO) told IPS. He was interviewed while attending the Third World
Congress against the Death Penalty in Paris at the beginning of
"The government is trying to silence the
opposition. If you publicly criticise the state leader, there’s
a good likelihood that you will be charged with treason. That’s
a threat to be feared. Treason carries the death penalty,"
Zimbabwe activists recall how two leading politicians
were charged with treason in a campaign of intimidation before past
Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition
party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been charged with
treason three times, the last just ahead of the 2002 presidential
elections. This trial lasted almost two years. It ended with a surprise
Ndabaningi Sithole, the leader of the Zimbabwe
African National Union (ZANU) was also charged with plotting to
overthrow the government. This was just ahead of the 1996 presidential
But he was found guilty. He was sentenced to
five years in prison, but released because of failing health. His
sentencing disqualified him from attending parliament until his
death three years later.
Both politicians claimed they had been framed
by the state security service.
Launching ZACRO’s national anti-death penalty
campaign with a newspaper article on Jan. 4, Wonder Chakanyuka,
ZACRO’s information and publicity officer, side-stepped the issue
of how the death penalty was being used to silence dissent. He stressed
rather that it was alien to the country’s African traditions and
left-over relic from colonial times.
"It was used to intimidate and eliminate
black people and as Zimbabweans we cannot continue having this law
on our books," he wrote in an opinion article.
"An increasing number of African states
have abolished the death penalty and Zimbabwe cannot afford to be
left behind," he added.
The article in the state-backed newspaper 'The
Herald', ended with an editorial note that ZACRO’s crusade against
the death penalty was not party-based and should not be used to
"demonise" the country.
This appears to confirm ZACRO’s view that Robert
Mugabe’s regime will not block its campaign.
"We have never clashed with the government
on this issue," Chiota said. "They are letting us go free.
This means that they want to leave the public to take up its position."
ZACRO’s campaign is likely to gather strong public
support from many non-governmental organisations, churches, traditional
leaders, lawyers and even members of the justice department.
"Killing someone for an offence will not
change or solve anything," David Chimhini, executive director
of the Zimbabwe
Civic Educational Trust (ZIMCET) told IPS.
"No one has the right to kill another."
ZIMCET advocates life sentences in place of the
death penalty for the most serious crime of murder.
Rights Trust of South Africa (SAHRIT) has also staunchly come
out against the death penalty. The death penalty should be replaced
by life imprisonment for "reflection and reform".
"The courts can sentence someone to death,
but they cannot be 100 percent sure that the person has committed
the crime," Noel Kututwa, its executive director, told IPS.
He expressed scepticism that the Mugabe regime
would listen to the voices of the abolitionists. "I don’t see
the government moving an inch on the death penalty law," he
Zimbabwe lawyers have also expressed concern
over the possibility of judicial error and are likely to strongly
back the ZACRO campaign on this issue.
One of the most tragic cases was that of Sukoluhle
Kachipare, a mother who was condemned to death for allegedly inciting
her 17-year-old maid to murder her own new-born child.
Only a concerned nation and international campaign
saved her from the gallows in 1997. She would have been the first
woman to be executed in Zimbabwe since 1898, when the British colonial
regime executed the spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda.
Though Kachipare’s sentence was first confirmed
by the Zimbabwe Supreme Court, lawyers continued her legal battle.
She was eventually acquitted, Stanford Moyo, president of the Zimbabwe
Law Society told IPS.
Church groups are expected to take part actively
in the ZACRO campaign -- especially Christian churches. There are
roughly seven million Christians in Zimbabwe, just over half the
Anglican bishop Sebastian Bakare has publicly
preached that state killing is against "the word of God and
all biblical commandments".
"It does not prevent people from committing
violent crimes. Rather, it creates an illusion that violent crime
is under control and being eliminated," he told IPS in an interview.
All groups are likely to rally behind the campaign’s
call for an end to the secrecy surrounding the death penalty issue
"The lack of public information is the biggest
concern," Irene Petras, the acting director of Zimbabwe
Lawyers for Human Rights, told IPS.
ZACRO’s Chiota complains that his organisation
is barred from visiting any death row prisoner. "We can’t say
anything about them. Only the authorities know their situation exactly."
High Court records show the number on death row
totals 47. But efforts by IPS to obtain a list of the names was
met with the response "classified information".
ZACRO now intends to take its anti-death penalty
campaign to all ten provinces in the country. It has plans to print
and distribute millions of pamphlets and posters. Everyone in the
country will be offered a campaign T-shirt.
But only with outside funds will it be possible
to finance such ambitious plans. Though nearly 100 years old, the
prisoners’ rights organisation still operates from humble offices
in the old township of Mbare in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
Inflation is currently the highest in the world
-- some 1,600 percent. Unemployment is over 85 percent and the economy
is in a free fall. A third of all men and women between the ages
of 15 and 49 are HIV positive.
But rather than despairing, ZACRO activists seem
"We are trying to get a movement going.
There’s never been a fully-fledged campaign before to make this
issue really visible," said Chiota.
"When the death penalty is gone, we believe
that people will come out of their shells and express their hopes
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