HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Zimbabwe is considering cutting back on hangings according to a proposed new constitution, reserving the death penalty for only extreme cases of aggravated murder, a government official said Wednesday.
Constitutional Affairs Minister Eric Matinenga said only killers who commit “gratuitous violence to the extent it becomes sickening” will be hanged.
In a compromise between human rights groups and traditional supporters of capital punishment, it will be up to judges to rule on the level of violence used.
Matinenga told The Associated Press that despite calls for its abolition, the death penalty cannot be “totally scrapped because there are murders that make you shudder and ask: What was the person thinking?”
Just this month a man was sentenced to death for relentlessly hunting down his teenage sister-in-law, assaulting her, strangling her to death and throwing her mangled body down a mine shaft in what the court ruled was brutality with “actual intent.”
In another case, an off-duty soldier gunned down five people he accused of taunting him in a bar.
The fate of at least 61 prisoners on death row will be considered on individual merits if the measure is adopted in a constitutional referendum that may be held in September, he said.
Rights groups argue every criminal killing is extreme violence and say it will be open to wide interpretations in courts asked to differentiate between axing deaths in village disputes, anger-fueled shootings and cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
No executions have been carried out under the three-year old coalition government. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s former opposition Movement for Democratic Change party has voiced its disapproval of hanging.
Execution orders must be signed by the coalition’s co-ministers of justice and approved by President Robert Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
Executions were suspended for a decade after Mugabe met with Pope John Paul II in 1988. During the moratorium, scores of inmates’ death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment on grounds that they suffered inhumane mental torment awaiting execution.
Matinenga said laws already exist for prisoners to appeal for a death sentence to be altered to a life sentence.
In 2010, the justice ministry said it was looking for a new hangman.
The last executioner retired after carrying out his last execution in 2004, saying he was struggling with his conscience in the face of superstitious local custom and beliefs in avenging ancestral spirits. After that, authorities reportedly sought a foreign executioner from Asia.
Human rights groups in 2010 cited a Supreme Court plea by a death row inmate who said he and other convicted killers were “losing their minds” in uncertainty over when jailers would call them for hangings at dawn on gallows of scaffolding and wood dating from the colonial era.
Official records show 78 people have been executed in Zimbabwe since the African country won independence from Britain in 1980.
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