A death sentence will no longer be the most extreme punitive action the Malawian state can take against a criminal instead, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that a life sentence behind bars speaks to the country’s constitutional hopes of protecting life and property.
The court’s ruling on Thursday, April 29 was the culmination of decades of public debate over the issue. The death penalty is in the books of most African countries even though in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, it is rarely used. The European Union, which also welcomed the ruling noted that “over the last 10 years no executions took place in 163 Member States of the United Nations, which represents 84% of their total number”.
Amnesty International also said in the wake of the ruling: “[t]he death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and it has no place in this world. The death penalty is a violation of the right to life and an assault on human rights”.
Malawi however became the 22nd country in Sub-Sahara Africa to scrap the law. Its citizens were nonetheless left divided over the court’s call as well as the rationale for what it concluded. The court was sympathetic to the notion of a right to life as being a fundamental human right upon which all others are built. It, therefore, goes that the state sanctioning a denial of the right to life is tantamount to not only moral complicity but an unconstitutional act as well.
The opposition to the ruling emanated from Malawians who feared that the worst deterrent to crime had been removed.
A social commentator. Humphrey Mvula, quoted by VOA News, explored the possibility of the ban increasing mob justice. As citizens understand that the most heinous crime is no longer punishable by death, they would most likely take things into their hands, Mvula argued.
“Even if we catch this person who has killed this person, he is not going to die.’ So individuals would rather see that person die on the spot, realizing that if he goes to court, the best judgment court can administer would be basically [a] life sentence,” Mvula opined. But this was in spite of the fact that the last time Malawi executed criminals was in 1992 when it hanged 12 people. About ten Malawians are currently on death row.
Civil rights group, such as the Association of People with Albinism, are displeased about the ruling. Malawi is one of the countries in central and east Africa with a worrying prevalence of ritual murders of people with albinism. The flesh of albinos is thought to bestow superhuman powers and good luck among some locals.
Proponents of abolition have however pushed back, pointing out that the death penalty is usually given to poor people who cannot afford competent legal counsel. There also seems to be very little to suggest that heinous crimes are reduced in jurisdictions such as the United States where 29 states still have the death penalty.