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Death penalty has no place in new constitution

FIRSTLY I would like to express my pleasure at learning that some members of MDC UK are actively participating in the current constitutional outreach programme towards a people-driven constitution in Zimbabwe.

The importance of participating in national affairs at a civic and political level cannot be over-emphasised.
There is no doubt that Robert Mugabe is using the current constitutional process, just like the last one and the unity government to realise his lifelong goal of dying in office. However, it is important to note that Mugabe like you and me is a man of flesh and his road will come to an end at some point. Nobody knows when that will be but he should never be given a free ride because one day prolonged and sustained pressure against him will tell.

There are many topics in the constitution that will certainly generate a lot of interest and lively political debate. For example dual citizenship, devolution, presidential powers, powers of parliament and bill of rights, to name but a few.

My focus is on the death penalty. I think this is a topic that evokes a lot of emotion and debate is often mired in religious and ideological overtones.

In the Western world the neo-liberal view is that punishment is crucial in the prevention of crime and no punishment is greater than the death penalty.

On the other hand the leftwing view tends to put more emphasis on the structural issues of society as the basis for preventing crime. For example issues of poverty, inequality and social justice are seen as critical to law and order.

Religion is quite pivotal in discussions on crime prevention and punishment.
The Christian religion is founded on the teachings of Christ. Christ said in his teachings that if you love me keep my commandments. One of the commandments is “Thou shalt not kill”.  One of the issues that intrigue me about the United States is that the death penalty is legal in some of its states and yet Christian values are quite common there. The other issue that intrigues me about the US is that Christian fundamentalism tends to be synonymous with right wing views and yet to me this seems to be inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. Christ was anti-establishment and pro-poor and encouraged tolerance and forgiveness.
There are some religious beliefs which either condone revenge and death as a form of punishment or promote it against perceived sinners.
Christianity is deeply rooted in Zimbabwe. In addition our forefathers believed in a system of justice which was based on compensation and which is akin to the modern day concept of restorative justice (kuripa). Before colonialism there were no prisons and there was no death penalty.
Proponents of the death penalty argue that it is a deterrent against crime.
However this is not as straightforward as it seems and clearly there is no clear evidence to back this argument. For example in the US there is no evidence to suggest that states that have retained the death penalty have benefitted from it. In fact studies over time have consistently shown that murder rates are higher in death penalty states than in non-death penalty states. In the United Kingdom there has not been a negative impact from the abolishment of the death penalty and since the last executions.
In a dysfunctional society such as we have in Zimbabwe today, thanks to a decade of political and economic instability and state- sponsored lawlessness, it is quite easy to overreact to lawlessness and advocate harsh methods of dealing with criminality but this ignores the underlying causes of crime and will not make any impact on the problem.
In the UK there is growing cynicism towards a criminal justice system that is perceived to be soft on crime but I think this is more to do with the failure of successive governments to strike a proper balance between the rights of accused persons and the rights of victims. For example a life sentence does not mean a life sentence in reality. There are cases where convicted murderers have been sentenced to life, then released some 20 years later and have gone on to commit more murders. The public has understandably reacted with outrage and this undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system.
New Labour introduced the concept of “Tough on Crime and Tough on the Causes of Crime”. However, I believe this can only work if the appropriate balance is struck between the rights of victims and the rights of offenders.
Given the right balance in a professional police organisation whose members are appropriately remunerated and an independent and professional judiciary, we do not need the death penalty.   What we need is a criminal justice system based on logic rather than emotion. A nation that is at peace with itself does not need to react harshly to offenders but can deliver protection to the public using civilised methods of crime prevention.

Jonathan Chawora,
Birmingham UK

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