Zimbabwe prisons to review death sentences

Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe prison officials said Wednesday that they are not in a hurry to engage the services of a newly-appointed hangman to execute the 77 inmates on death row and will review their sentences.

Prison authorities want to give prisoners facing execution a "chance to live," official Huggins Machingauta said. He said all death sentences will be brought before the cabinet of ministers for a review to commute them to life.

"We are in no hurry to hang anyone. It is our wish and hope that they get a reprieve," Machingauta said.

The hangman's post was vacant for about seven years since the previous one retired in 2005. State media reported earlier this month that prison officials said they found a new hangman.

A new proposed draft constitution endorsed by the country's two main political parties exempts women, men under 21 and those over 70 from the death penalty. The charter, which will be put to a referendum on March 16, only allows for the imposition of death penalty for cases of "aggravated murder."

Civic rights groups, however, want the "total abolition" of the death penalty.

Edison Chiota, head of a prisoners' rights group, Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender, said Wednesday his group is against what he called the selective way the law would be applied under the new constitution.

"People are all the same without taking gender and age differences into account," Chiota said.

He said if Zimbabwe decides to continue with the executions it must adopt international best practices of execution such as the lethal injection that do not cause excessive pain.

Chiota said Zimbabwe uses the oldest method of hanging called "the long drop" where the prisoner is made to stand on a trap door. The trap door is opened for the noose to break or dislocate the neck.

"Hangings are outdated," Chiota said.

A prison officer who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job said he is still haunted by several executions he witnessed in his 20 years of service at Harare's Central Prison.

"The method is gruesome and inhumane, I wouldn't recommend anyone to witness it," he said. "One only needs to read the log book in which the executions are entered to have chills run down the spine."

The officer said it was a "harrowing ordeal to have to accompany someone to such a brutal end."

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