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Moving away from the death penalty in Zimbabwe – has the time come for change?

This op-ed was published on Bulawayo24 News, 24 May 2018

By Parvais Jabbar and Val Ingham-Thorpe

Zimbabwe has shown itself ready to embrace change in recent months but would that extend to abolition of the death penalty? The findings of a new public opinion survey suggest that this might be the case, opening up the debate on abolition of the death penalty.

The death penalty has been a contentious issue in Zimbabwe and in an effort to find out what the public think, we commissioned a leading criminologist, Dr Mai Sato to carry out a nationwide public opinion survey. The report was launched in Harare this week and the results presented (and captured in this short video below) were surprising.

While a majority of Zimbabweans continue to support the death penalty, support was not particularly strong. Only 41% thought that Zimbabwe should ‘definitely’ keep the death penalty, with 20% feeling that it should ‘probably’ be kept – a combined total of no more than 61%. The report also identified that public opinion, whether it was in favour of retention or abolition, was, in general, not very informed or based on deep knowledge of the subject matter. Of those surveyed, 83% were not aware that Zimbabwe had not carried out any executions for over a decade.

When exploring the reasons behind support for the death penalty, it was striking that the “eye for an eye” argument did not hold much traction with the Zimbabwean public. Only 14% of retentionists supported the death penalty for retributive reasons, whereas similar studies conducted in GhanaTrinidad and other countries have found this to be one of the most popular arguments in favour of the death penalty. Nor did the public think that the death penalty was an effective criminal justice policy, with 92% of Zimbabweans favouring policies other than “more executions” for reducing violent crime rates.

Most Zimbabweans accepted that there should be strict limits on capital punishment and were reluctant to impose the death penalty when presented with different case scenarios. Ultimately, 80% of those in favour of the death penalty would be willing to accept abolition if it became government policy.

Around the world the death penalty is dying out. More than two-thirds of the world’s nations have now abolished capital punishment in law or in practice. In 2017, executions were carried out in just 23 countries and there was a global decline in the number of people sentenced to death. In sub-Saharan Africa, the trend towards abolition is especially pronounced. Only two countries in the region carried out executions in 2017 – Somalia and South Sudan – and in recent years Guinea, Benin, Madagascar and the Republic of the Congo all abolished the death penalty. Of the countries that neighbour Zimbabwe, only Botswana has executed anybody in the last few years.

While Zimbabwe continues to retain the death penalty, there has been some positive progress towards abolition. An unofficial moratorium on executions is in place and in 2013 the new constitution gave full discretion to judges to consider whether the death penalty should be imposed in any given case. The last execution in Zimbabwe was carried out in 2005 – some 12 years ago.

What then is preventing Zimbabwe from joining the rest of the world’s nations who have abolished the death penalty? In this context it is important to gauge public opinion. Frequently we are told that, whilst personally many key stakeholders are in favour of abolition, strong public support for the death penalty will not allow for change. But is the Zimbabwean public more averse to moving forward than other nations which have successfully abolished the death penalty?

The survey findings show that, while on the surface public support for capital punishment might appear strong, this is not the whole picture. Attitudes towards the death penalty tend to be highly qualified; where people sit on the issue will vary according to different assumptions, information and situations. When faced with the reality of typical case scenarios or the possibility of wrongful convictions, we often find that support for the death penalty wavers. Moreover, attitudes towards the death penalty are frequently misinformed and based on a limited understanding of the issues. Going beyond the simple question of support or opposition to capital punishment, this research sheds light on the nuanced and complex views of Zimbabweans towards the death penalty.

At the launch of the report in Harare, guests included not only the media but prominent parliamentarians and other key stakeholders. There appeared to be broad political agreement that abolition was desirable and achievable in the short term. The findings of the report served to underline the view that the public would accept such change.

Ultimately, abolition of the death penalty is a political decision requiring leadership. That is not to marginalise the importance of public views but rather to accept that public opinion should be sought to inform the debate on capital punishment, but not lead it.

This research, we believe, shows the Zimbabwean public is ready to accept change, but that this change must be explained. We hope that the findings will encourage us all to question assumptions made about public views and help to open the debate on the future of capital punishment in Zimbabwe.

Parvais Jabbar is Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project, an international legal action charity based in London, UK. Val Ingham-Thorpe is Director of Zimbabwean NGO Veritas.

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