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Fight to abolish the death penalty

[Zambia] Levy Mwanawasa, MMD president.
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A Zambian lawyer is seeking to abolish the death penalty in a country in which the president and human rights groups are united in their opposition to capital punishment.

Kelvin Hang'andu is representing two men on death row at the country's maximum prison in Kabwe, about 150 km north of the capital, Lusaka. They were sentenced in 2000, and since then the Supreme Court has twice rejected his petition.

The court reserved its judgment on the third appeal last month, and advised the lawyer to make a submission to the Constitution Review Commission (CRC).

Hang'andu has cited Jesus Christ's death "on account of false testimony," to argue that there is no other way "society [can] permanently eliminate the horrific prospect of executing innocent people, since miscarriage of justice is an inseparable part of capital punishment".

Since 1964, when Zambia became independent, 53 people have reportedly been executed by hanging. There are currently 246 prisoners on death row.

Benjamin Banda and Cephas Kufa Miti, Hang'andu's clients, were sentenced to death after being found guilty of aggravated robbery, but Miti has since died in custody. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeals and upheld their convictions, which allow for capital punishment.

The lawyer has argued that his clients' death sentences are contrary to the Zambian constitution on the grounds that hanging is inhuman and degrading. Article 15 of the constitution states that "a person shall not be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading punishment, or other like punishment".

"The sentences of death imposed on the petitioners violates the treaties signed by the Zambian government, and other international guidelines requiring abolition of capital punishment in all United Nations member states," he said.

The petition of Hang'andu remaining client, Banda, has been boosted by President Levy Mwanawasa's refusal to sign a death penalty as long as he remains in office. To demonstrate his rejection of the death penalty, Mwanawasa recently commuted the death sentences of 46 rebel soldiers, convicted of treason after a foiled coup plot in 1997, to long prison terms.

In a press statement on the status of the death penalty in Africa this week, Amnesty International noted that Mwanawasa had commuted 60 death sentences so far this year, and five Southern African countries - Angola, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa - had abolished capital punishment since 1990.

Human rights groups and a section of the church have called on Mwanawasa to also do away with the death penalty, but he has instead urged them to make submissions to the CRC.

"Poor policing and forced confessions, which poor people are subjected, to as well as poor legal representation ... does lead to wrongful conviction and shedding of innocent people's blood," said Chishimba Milongo, a spokesperson for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. "In the absence of statistics, but with some vivid examples of rich people getting away with crime in Zambia, we can assume that poor people do get convicted, even when innocent."

Supporters of the death penalty have been quoted in the media as saying that it should be used for decongesting prisons. Others, including some church leaders, are adamant that the death penalty should remain in force as a deterrent to would-be offenders.

Executive director of the Inter-Africa Network for Human Rights, Ng'ande Mwanajiti, pointed out that the death penalty had failed to reduce crime in most jurisdictions.

With the debate ongoing, the future of capital punishment will only be known in August, when the CRC submits its findings to Mwanawasa.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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