In Zimbabwe, the court is required, in certain instances, to hand down a death sentence. Under the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act of Zimbabwe, this mandatory death sentence is imposed upon all persons convicted of murder. In November 2009, Sheperd Mazango, of Harare, was convicted of murder and subsequently sentenced to death, as required of the Court under law. Through his lawyer, IBJ-Zimbabwe Fellow, Innocent Maja, he is challenging the constitutionality of the death sentence and its compulsory application, and petitioning that the death penalty be replaced by alternative, yet equally severe, legal sentences.
Specifically, the case against the state argues that the death penalty offends human dignity, constitutes inhumane and degrading punishment, and amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of life, all in breach of express or implicit provisions of the Zimbabwe Constitution. In addition to the aforementioned constitutional violations, the fact that a sentence of death is mandatory also denies citizens of their right to fair trial, violates the principle of separation of powers by depriving the judiciary of one of their essential functions, and, in practice, discriminates against indigent accused persons.
The petitioner describes hanging, the method used in Zimbabwe, as “horrendous, barbaric, inhumane, brutal, and uncivilized.” It focuses on the significant delays characteristic of Zimbabwe’s death row, stating that delays in execution lead to anxiety and severe emotional and physical trauma, particularly given current prison conditions. The case centers on the idea that prisoners retain some rights, even after conviction. Most fundamentally, under Zimbabwe’s Constitution, it maintains that all citizens have a right to be free from arbitrary deprivation of life and a right not to be subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading punishments.
Though the last execution happened in 2003, currently, there are at least 49 prisoners on death row at Harare Central Prison. In the past, executions have been suspended for years due to a lack of a public hangman. While they wait, prisoners on death row have to deal with horrendous prison conditions. In Zimbabwe, twenty-five men are held in a single nine meters by four meters cell. Food portions are meager and consist of barely edible or spoilt food. Unsanitary conditions in both the over-crowded cells and the kitchen threaten the wellbeing of all prisoners.
Innocent became involved in this case after a junior lawyer at his law firm, assigned to the matter on a pro bono basis, represented Mazango during the trial in which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Immediately, they decided to challenge the death penalty based on his sentence. For the purposes of monitoring the progress of the case closely and media interface, it was filed through Maja and Associates, Innocent’s law firm. Thus far, an application to the court has been filed, and both Innocent and Mazango await the state’s response, while the legal team prepares heads of argument to file with the court.
A number of state-sponsored Zimbabwe newspapers have featured Sheperd Mazango’s case, giving it a fair amount of in-state media attention. Recently, international newspapers have also expressed interest in the case. This attention comes as a result of interest and awareness in Zimbabwe on the rights of the accused. Conversely, the case and the media attention it receives are likely to attract a wider audience to the debate on the death penalty and rights retained by the accused in Zimbabwe.
According to Innocent, “Most indigent persons in Zimbabwe, who cannot afford legal counsel, are given inexperienced lawyers to represent them. Oftentimes, this leads to conviction and death sentences. It is a denial of justice. The death penalty is atrocious, in that it takes away human life. Once a human life is taken away, the rights of that person are taken away as well. The mode of killing (i.e. hanging) is horrendous, inhumane, and degrading. It is torturous.”