The Human Rights Commission commends President Edgar Chagwa Lungu for commuting sentences of 246 death row inmates in exercise of his powers provided for under Article 97 of the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2016.
This gesture by His Excellency the President is commendable in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID – 19) as it will help to decongest the Condemned Section at Mukobeko Maximum Security Correctional Facility and impact positively on the right to health of inmates on death throw and ultimately their right to life. The Condemned Section was designed in the colonial era to accommodate only 50 inmates. Before the commutation, the number of inmates was in excess of 400 thereby posing a great risk to the health of the inmates particularly given the second wave of COVID-19 which is said to be spreading quickly and is more deadly.
In line with its mandate under Section 9 (d) of the Human Rights Commission Act, Chapter 48 of the Laws of Zambia, the Commission has been monitoring correctional facilities to assess the measures that have been put in place to prevent and control the spread of COVID – 19 and has found that overcrowding remains the biggest challenge being faced in the Condemned Section of Mukobeko Maximum Security Correctional Facility and the rest of the correctional facilities countrywide. The problem of persistent overcrowding has made social distancing difficult particularly in the Condemned Section and increased the risk of transmission of infectious diseases, including COVID – 19, among inmates and correctional officers.
Therefore, the commutation of the sentences of 246 death row inmates under the Presidential Prerogative of Mercy is a positive measure that will help to reduce overcrowding in the Condemned Section at Mukobeko Maximum Security Correctional Facility and increase spatial separation among the remaining inmates in line with the recommended World Health Organization (WHO) public health guidelines on responding to COVID-19 and controlling the spread of the infection in prisons.
The Commission has also observed positive measures being taken by the Zambia Correctional Service aimed at improving hygiene, screening, testing, and isolation of cases as well as preventing the spread of COVID – 19 through the restriction of visits by family members and the general public.
However, it is clear from the number of cases that the Zambia Correctional Service has recorded among inmates and correctional officers that such commendable measures have been inadequate to prevent the outbreak of COVID – 19 in the correctional facilities. With 67 COVID – cases reported so far, there is urgent need for strict measures and escalation of interventions in order to control the outbreak before the situation worsens in the correctional facilities.
Further, it is worth noting that Zambia has earned a good human rights record at international level on account of the commendable actions taken by successive Presidents from the Levy Mwanawasa Administration to the current leadership who have consistently used their powers under Article 97 of the Zambian Constitution to suspend death penalty in practice and commute death sentences to life imprisonment.
A de facto moratorium on the death penalty has been in effect since the last executions carried out in 1997 and, as a result, Zambia is considered to be a de facto death penalty abolitionist country by the international community. The recent decision of His Excellency the President to commute the sentences of 246 inmates on death row further maintains Zambia’s status as a de facto death penalty abolitionist country.
It is the Commission’s hope that the country will continue to move with the global tide of death penalty abolitionism and ultimately achieve the abolition of death penalty both in law and in practice. The abolition of death penalty in law does not imply that the offences that attract the death penalty will not be punished. Life imprisonment has often been used worldwide as alternative punishment for offenders who have committed the most serious crimes following the abolition of the death penalty or the implementation of a moratorium on its use.
The Commission, therefore, calls upon the Government to ensure that Zambia moves towards permanently abolishing the death penalty in order to enhance respect for the right to life by taking all the necessary measures, including providing the citizens an opportunity to decide on the issue through a National Referendum as only the people of Zambia have the final say on whether Zambia should maintain the death penalty or not.
PRINCIPAL INFORMATION OFFICER
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION