Harare, Zimbabwe - In Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, there are 77 convicts who have been condemned to death by hanging.
Held in solitary confinement in cells close to the gallows, some of those condemned to death have been there for more than a decade, their appeals rejected by President Robert Mugabe.
Although the death penalty is still on the books in Zimbabwe, there have been no executions since 2004, in part because there was no hangman.
But a macabre development could potentially activate the dormant penalty. Years of unsuccessful headhunting by the country’s Justice and Legal Affairs ended last September with a sombre announcement by Justice and Legal Affairs secretary David Mangota: the government had secured a hangman who was "raring to go".
Little is known of the hangman, who is rumoured to be from Malawi. Authorities have refused to clear any interviews with him.
The announcement came as a surprise, given the ambivalence within the Zimbabwean criminal justice system about executions. Although capital punishment was codified during British rule, which ended in 1980, evolving jurisprudence and new sensitivities within Zimbabwe have limited the actual practice to the barest minimum.
The recruitment has sharply divided the government - formed between President Robert Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now prime minister.
"Whoever sanctioned the hiring of a hangman at this juncture of Zimbabwe's jurisprudential history is obviously of unsound mind."
- Obert Gutu, deputy justice and legal affairs minister
The Justice and Legal Affairs ministry is a shared portfolio: minister Chinamasa belongs to Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and his deputy Obert Gutu is a member of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Chinamasa says in a country with high levels of violence and regular reports of grisly rapes and murders, the perpetrators of such crimes are "worthy" of death sentences.
However, his deputy Gutu is staunchly opposed to the recruitment.
"It's bizarre and odious in the extreme," the deputy minister said. "Whoever sanctioned the hiring of a hangman at this juncture of Zimbabwe's jurisprudential history is obviously of unsound mind. For how else can you describe such an absurd decision to engage the services of a hangman when the draft constitution has made it quite apparent that the death penalty is on its way out?
Gutu added that there will not be any executions taking place in the near future.
Abolishing capital punishment
With 77 prisoners on death row, there is a growing clamour to abolish capital punishment through the ongoing constitution-making process.
Zimbabwe’s new constitution prohibits the death penalty for all women, as well as men who were under 21 at the time of the crime and those over 70. It also bans using the death penalty as a mandatory punishment.
The new constitution, overwhelmingly approved by Zimbabweans during a national referendum on March 16, puts greater limits on the use of capital punishment. Two women on death row recieved stays on their proposed executions after the draft constitution won support in the referendum.
Human rights group Amnesty International said while the proposed limitations to applying the punishment are welcome, it called for the death penalty to be abolished fully in the new constitution, regardless of gender and the circumstances in which a crime was committed.
“This macabre recruitment [of a new hangman] is disturbing and suggests that Zimbabwe does not want to join the global trend towards abolition of this cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment,” Noel Kututwa, the southern Africa director for Amnesty, said.
Human rights groups and other non-governmental agencies have been circulating petitions calling for the abolition of the death penalty for some time now.
Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe chairperson Virginia Muwanigwa said: “We want the death penalty to be removed from our constitution and our laws completely. One important reason for this is that it is mostly poor people who often get hanged.”
She spoke as the UN chief Ban Ki-moon stepped up calls for a global moratorium on applying the death penalty. “A global moratorium is a crucial stepping stone towards full worldwide abolition,” Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said in a speech delivered at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month on behalf of Ban.
Revived national debate
"Look at the Zimbabwean context and the level of funded political violence, but also the emergence of ritual killings. I think the issue of capital punishment should be maintained."
- Sydney Chisi, civil rights campaigner
Within Zimbabwe, opinion is sharply divided, and the possibility of resuming executions has stoked a national debate.
Former national director of the Zimbabwean National Constitutional Assembly Earnest Mudzengi believes that capital punishment must be abolished. “It is degrading, and is against God-endowed values of humanity,” he said.
Mary Moyo, a vendor in Harare, holds the same views, believing that “only God has the right to take life”.
But Samson Marecha, a self-employed motor mechanic, says abolishing capital punishment will foment crime. “There are times when you need an eye for an eye,” he argued.
His views are similar to those of civil rights campaigner Sydney Chisi, who backs the death penalty as a deterrent for crime and political violence. He spoke as Christpower Maisiri, the 12-year-old son of a district organiser and aspiring legislator for the MDC, died in what the party called a “politically motivated attack” by alleged militants of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.
"Look at the Zimbabwean context and the level of funded political violence, but also the emergence of ritual killings. I think the issue of capital punishment should be maintained,” Chisi said. “The constitution should allow that provision so as to manage the violence we are engulfed in.”
Meanwhile, men on death row such as convicted murderer Shepherd Mazango, who robbed and hacked a man to death, have raised constitutional arguments in a Supreme Court challenge against the death penalty.
Convicted to die by hanging in November 2009, Mazango's presidential mercy petition fell through. He has filed an emergency motion with the courts, but because court cases have been known to take ages without judgments, Zimbabwean defence lawyers have raised arguments that forcing someone accused or even convicted of a capital offence to wait for years before an execution amounted to cruel and unusual punishment - which the constitution says is illegal.
Mazango wants his sentence commuted to life in prison, and says he has suffered anguish on death row because of the delay in execution.
"This [delay in execution] has caused severe trauma on the inmates that some of them are losing their mind," Mazango said in his constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court.
"The very thought that I am dying steals all my hope for the future, makes me restless and the delay traumatises me. It causes me emotional and psychological trauma. Worse still, to think that I can spend 13 years before execution like my colleague George Manyonga crushes me."