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outmanoeuvred but undeterred
Kwidini, Inter Press Service (IPS)
October 24, 2007
Anti-death penalty activists
in Zimbabwe are keeping up their campaign, despite a police clampdown
on their meetings and ever-lengthening food queues, power cuts and
the relentless rise in prices of many essential items.
now very difficult to obtain police clearance to hold gatherings.
Everything we try to do to bring people together is viewed by the
police as a political event," John Chinamurungu, Amnesty
International's chairperson in Zimbabwe, told IPS. "It's
very difficult to get campaigns going."
Amnesty and the Zimbabwe
Association for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of Offenders
(Zacro) have been co-operating closely to rally public support for
the abolition of the death penalty and to get the issue on the national
Zacro's new engagement
follows an opinion article by an official of the organisation in
the state-owned daily, 'The Herald', last January. This announced
the opening of a carefully-scripted Zacro campaign, details of which
were later outlined to IPS by Edson Chiota, the organisation's national
The plan included carrying
the message of abolition to Zimbabwe's 13 million citizens with
the printing and distribution of millions of posters and pamphlets.
But campaigning has been
hit by the speed and scale of the unfolding economic crisis. In
January the year-on-year official inflation rate was 1,600 percent.
In September it reached 7,982.1 percent, according to the government's
Central Statistical Office. Unofficially, the rate is said to be
approaching 25,000 percent.
Paper and fuel, essential
for a nationwide campaign, are almost impossible to obtain.
The struggle to exist
from day to day is now uppermost on people's minds. In the capital,
Harare, hour-long queues for bread are normal. Earlier this month,
the agriculture ministry announced that the wheat harvest was two-thirds
of what was required. Shortly afterwards, the official price of
bread was increased by 300 percent.
"There are millions
in Zimbabwe who need food assistance," Richard Lee of the United
Nations World Food Programme, said in August. It was estimated then
that some 3.3 million would require the agency's help to survive
over the coming months.
Authorities have responded
to any street protest or show of dissent by rushing in riot police,
creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
But despite the unfolding
catastrophe, Amnesty and Zacro have refused to be cowed into calling
off their sensitisation workshops on the death penalty.
Amnesty's local vice-chairperson,
Francis Mweene, has been a notable participant, having survived
death row. He was sentenced to death in white-ruled Rhodesia, as
Zimbabwe was known before it gained independence in 1980.
"It was a big surprise
to me that I found myself able to live again. It was because Amnesty
Zimbabwe stood for my right to life," he told IPS, recalling
how the organisation's international contacts helped pull him back
from the jaws of death.
"It is through testimonies
that I think people can be sensitised and understand why we are
advocating against (the) death (sentence)."
Mweene's leading of the
testimonies clearly makes it difficult for the authorities to step
in and ban such meetings. Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, led
a liberation war against the Ian Smith regime and would certainly
have ended up on death row like Mweene had he been captured.
Alongside these meetings,
Amnesty has been issuing T-Shirts emblazoned with anti-death penalty
In July, Zacro tried
to persuade traditional leaders in the Council of Chiefs to support
its anti-death penalty campaign. The chiefs were holding their annual
meeting in Harare and the northern resort of Victoria Falls.
But politicians were
clearly not willing to see this happen. They stepped in to prevent
the death penalty issue being tabled at the meeting, according to
"We hoped to start
with the chiefs and use them as leverage to get this issue into
the House of Assembly and eventually seek out an audience with the
head of state," Chakanyuka told IPS.
The chiefs could have
raised the issue in parliament, where they sit by appointment.
Zacro's focus on the
chiefs fitted into the initial thrust of the campaign, which argued
that the death penalty was "alien and contrary to traditional
African concepts of justice and beliefs".
The meeting also showed
that opinion among the officially-supported chiefs was divided on
the death penalty issue.
"You should be given
a sentence in accordance with your crime. If you deliberately kill,
you should also be killed," Chief Makoni told the meeting,
according to a press report at the time in the privately-owned 'Financial
It has been suggested
that the chiefs might have been less than enthusiastic about being
associated with such a controversial issue and bringing it before
Mugabe, for fear of losing their privileges. They are essentially
on the government payroll.
"With the elections
coming there is no chance we will be able to talk to the chiefs
again until afterwards," a disappointed Chakanyuka said.
The polls -- presidential,
parliamentary and local government -- are expected to be held in
Zacro is now planning
to circulate a nation-wide petition calling for abolition of the
"We want to present
a petition to President Mugabe since he is the man who has been
vested with all the powers to decide if one should be sent to the
gallows or not," Chakanyuka said.
Mugabe has resisted all
calls for the repeal of the death penalty, which dates back to the
colonial era, in his 27 years of rule -- and is unlikely to change
his mind now, in the twilight of his beleaguered regime.
But by campaigning on
this issue now and associating the retention of capital punishment
more closely with his name, it may be hoped that one of the first
measures to be adopted by his successors will be the abolition of
the death penalty.
Zacro is also hoping
that its campaign will stimulate public interest in further penal
The last execution in
Zimbabwe was carried out in 2004. Since 1999 seven people have been
executed by hanging, according to Zacro.
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