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Harare, rights groups to resume talks on rights body
Stanley Kwenda, Inter Press Service (IPS)
February 27, 2007

HARARE - 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 February.

"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," Chiota said.

Zimbabwe activists recall how two leading politicians were charged with treason in a campaign of intimidation before past elections.

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 acquittal.

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 elections.

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.

The Human 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 said.

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 population.

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 in Zimbabwe.

"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 undeterred.

"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 and wishes."

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