By Lucy Peace Nantume
On 11th April 2017, Amnesty International released its global report titled “Death Sentences and Executions 2016”. This comes at a crucial time on the Christian calendar of yet another commemoration of an execution of an innocent man over 2017 years ago and thus a great reminder of how flawed the justice systems can be and one of the main reasons for advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty.
According to the report, Amnesty recorded 60 exonerations of prisoners under sentence of death in 9 countries: Bangladesh (4), China (5), Ghana (1), Kuwait (5), Mauritania (1), Nigeria (32), Sudan (9), Taiwan (1) and Viet Nam (2). Exoneration is the process whereby, after sentencing and the conclusion of the appeals process, the convicted person is later cleared from blame or acquitted of the criminal charge, and therefore is regarded as innocent in the eyes of the law. Many however do not leave to see that day.
World over however, progress has been registered in ridding the justice systems of the death sentence. 172 (89%) of the 193 member states of the UN were execution-free in 2016 including Uganda. As of 31 December 2016, 141 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Of these, 104 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes an increase from the 64 recorded 20 years ago in 1997; 7 had abolished for ordinary crimes and retained only for exceptional crimes such as those under military law; 30 are abolitionist in practice having not executed anyone during the last 10 years and having an established policy or practice of not carrying out executions while 57 are retentionist i.e. countries retaining death penalty for ordinary crimes. The newest entrants on the abolitionist list were Benin where the Constitutional Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional on 21 January; Nauru where a revised Criminal Code which does not include the death penalty among permissible punishments came into force on 12 May and Guinea where the President promulgated the revised Criminal Code which abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only.
Although Uganda has not carried out any executions since I999 (for civilian) and 2005 (for military), it is still categorised as a retentionist instead of abolitionist de facto country because it rejected all recommendations to abolish the death penalty at its last Universal Periodic Review before the U.N. Human Rights Council and signed four Notes Verbales denouncing the U.N. General Assembly’s Resolution to impose a global moratorium on the use of capital punishment. It is however worth noting that during the vote in 2014, for the first time Uganda abstained from voting instead of its previous vote against and maintained the abstinence during the vote in 2016 an applauded positive step towards abolition. Mitigations conducted towards the end of 2016 saw Uganda’s death row population decrease to 176 however this is still among the highest in Sub Saharan Africa and at 28, it has the highest number of offences attracting the death sentence in the East African region. A private members’ bill aimed at among others reducing the number of offences attracting the death sentence is before parliament for consideration. If passed into law, this will take Uganda one-step ahead in the journey towards full abolition of this barbaric sentence, which does not effectively serve the aims of a punishment. As Albert Camus wrote in a 1956 book called Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion & Death: An execution is not simply death. It is just as different from the deprivation of life as a concentration camp is from prison. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.
The writer is a rights lawyer and human rights activist working with the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI)