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Judgement reserved on life imprisonment case

Mlondolozi Ndlovu

Zimbabwean lawyer Tendai Biti on Wednesday told the Constitutional Court that handing down life sentences to convicted prisoners was an unconstitutional, oppressive and inhumane punishment.

Biti said this in a case in which he is representing Obediah Makoni who is challenging the Commissioner of Prisons for keeping him in prison without any hope of release and urges the government to uphold human rights.

Makoni has been in prison for 21 years since he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995, a severe sentence which he argues is like an eye for an eye approach.  He is therefore seeking a review of his sentence.

In Zimbabwe a sentence of life imprisonment means that the person spends the rest of their life in prison, as he or she cannot be released on parole, a position that Makoni argues is like locking some in prison and throwing away the keys.

He said prison conditions at Chikurubi and Hwahwa maximum security prisons are so severe and deplorable that a long sentence there is similar to a death sentence.

Biti further told the Constitutional Court that for the past 21 years that Makoni had been incarcerated, he had proved to be a model prisoner and had achieved the highest level of behavior and was therefore seeking a  review of his sentence.

He said it was no longer internationally acceptable for the Executive to grant parole to inmates but it should be instead the duty of courts and prison administrations.

“The new Zimbabwe Constitution celebrates the clear separation of power between the Executive and the judiciary.  This does not take the role of this court as the arbiter in this case,” Mr. Biti said.

“An order is sought that life imprisonment without hope of parole amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”

The Attorney General’s Office is against the Constitutional Court reviewing life sentences saying it is the duty of the Legislature.

Judge President Godfrey Chidyausiku sitting with the entire Constitutional Court bench reserved judgment in the matter.

Meanwhile the Constitutional court has ruled that another application before it in which Farai Lawrence Ndlovu, a prisoner on death row, is challenging the Minister of Justice on the constitutionality of the death penalty should be rolled into one with a similar case which the court dealt with two weeks ago.

Early this month, 15 prison inmates on death role brought the Minister of Justice to court challenging the death penalty.

The matter is being heard by a separate full Constitutional Court bench led by Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba.


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