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UN rights experts hail Zambia’s move away from death penalty, flag ‘areas of concern’ elsewhere in Africa

Photo: UNODC (file)
UNODC (file)
Photo: UNODC (file)

UN rights experts hail Zambia’s move away from death penalty, flag ‘areas of concern’ elsewhere in Africa

The United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Méndez, welcomed Zambian President Edgar Lungui’s decision to commute death sentences of 332 people to life imprisonment, and encouraged the authorities “to take a step further by removing all reference to the death penalty in the country’s laws.”

President Lungui commuted the sentences after his visit to Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, which despite a capacity of 51 inmates, houses hundreds.

“By commuting these death sentences, the Zambia puts a stop to mental and physical pain and suffering, and takes an important step towards ensuring respect for the inherent dignity of the human person,” Mr. Mendez underscored in a press release.

Mr. Heyns added that the decision is in line with the trend in Africa – as in the rest of the world – to move away from the death penalty.

“As the United Nations Secretary-General has said, there is no room for this form of punishment in the 21st Century.”

However, the experts warned of continuing areas of concern regarding the death penalty in Africa.

Pointing to Egypt, they noted that hundreds of defendants are simultaneously sentenced to death in unfair mass trials. “Even though the execution rate is lower, these trials clearly do not meet international standards” they said.

Gambia is another worry. After abruptly ending a long-standing moratorium and hanging nine people in 2012, a proposal has been tabled to increase the number of offenses punishable by death. “This proposal, if adopted, would be in stark contrast to the trend away from capital punishment elsewhere on the continent,” the experts stressed.

They noted that President Lungui’s decision supports previous steps towards abolishing capital punishment in the Zambia, where a presidential moratorium on the death penalty has been maintained since 1997. At the same time, they called on the country to vote in favour of the UN General Assembly’s resolution on a global moratorium, rather than abstaining, as they have in the previous four votes.

According to the Special Rapporteurs, three-quarters of the world has abolished the death penalty in law or in practice – and the same applies to the African continent. In 2014, only four States in the region are known to have conducted executions. Earlier this month, Togo became Africa’s 12th State party to the second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty.

Over the last two decades, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has not only consistently called for the abolition of the death penalty but also drafted a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Abolition of the Death Penalty.

“These are very significant steps by the Commission, and if the Protocol is adopted soon by the African Union and opened for ratification by African States, that will give a renewed emphasis to the process of putting the era of the death penalty behind us,” emphasized the UN experts.