In prisons across Africa, many thousands of prisoners sit on death row, uncertain whether they will be allowed to live. But as the numbers of condemned prisoners climb, with an estimated 5 843 awaiting execution in prisons all over Africa, debate over the death penalty is also growing. The newest report from Amnesty International, released this week, shows some stark contrasts. While, for example, Botswana is often considered to be a country that respects human rights, it is the only state south of the Sahara to have carried out executions (three in 2021, the year considered by Amnesty’s latest report). And while Kenya and Malawi have seen vigorous judicial discussion about mandatory death sentences, in Nigeria at least 3 036 people are imprisoned under the death sentence, one of the highest numbers recorded for any nation, worldwide.
The publication of Amnesty International’s annual report seems a moment to reflect on the deadly seriousness of a judicial officer’s task.
As always, this year’s report contains sobering statistics on the numbers of people around the world awaiting execution or who have already suffered the death penalty.
In countries that claim to observe the rule of law, it will be judges who sentence people to death; their say-so is an essential part of the system. They may have the opportunity, in the course of their work, to go even further, and rule on whether the death penalty itself is lawful or, perhaps, on the constitutionality of mandatory death sentences.
This report, in other words, should interest judges considerably.
Among the issues highlighted in the latest Amnesty report is that the world’s re-opening after earlier Covid-19 restrictions has led to higher numbers of death sentences. As the courts once again start hearing cases that could attract capital punishment, judges worldwide delivered a total of almost 40% more death sentences than in 2020, and the number of people under sentence of death around the world is now at least 28 670. Of these, 5 843 are on death row in Africa.
At the same time, the numbers of executions actually carried out in Africa remains small relative to the numbers on death row. During 2021, at least 83 executions were carried out in Egypt, more than 21 in Somalia, at least nine in South Sudan and three in Botswana. This brings to four, the number of the African Union’s 55 countries that carried out executions, while 18 of the UN’s 193 member states were known to have executed people.
The number of death sentences passed by the courts is obviously a great deal higher than the number of executions actually carried out, and the recorded total includes for example, six more in Botswana, nine in Algeria, more than four in Cameroon, over 81 in Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 356 in Egypt, at least 11 in Malawi, 14 in Kenya and nine in Zambia.
International fair trial standards not met
Amnesty notes that Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda all imposed death sentences in 2021, ‘after they were not believed to have done so in 2020.’
And its report includes the particularly worrying feature that in several countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and Somalia, death sentences were known to have been imposed after proceedings ‘that did not meet international fair trial standards’.
The numbers of people sitting on death row in sub-Saharan Africa must surely be a cause for concern: more than 250 in Cameroon, for example, more than 600 in Kenya, over 480 in Tanzania and over 3 000 in Nigeria.
Pardons and commutations
The report notes that commutations, pardons and exonerations were recorded in several countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo where at least 26 people who had been sentenced to death were pardoned, and, at the end of the year, ‘all death sentences for which all appeals had been rejected, were commuted.’
In Zambia the sentences of 23 people who had been on death row for more than eight years were commuted, while in Nigeria, 17 people originally sentenced to death won appeals, and 83 death sentences were commuted.
But there is other, positive news in the report. Writing about abolition in Africa, and Amnesty lists as an important world milestone, the July 2021 unanimous vote, by the parliament of Sierra Leone, to adopt a bill that would ‘fully abolish the death penalty once effected into law.’
Also listed in the report as positive news were the Bills to abolish the death penalty that are moving through the legislative bodies of Central African Republic and Ghana, and the continued official moratorium on executions in Gambia.
In South Sudan the number of recorded executions increased, with at least 334 on death row. Typifying the problems associated with capital punishment sentences is the story recorded by Amnesty of the man, released from death row in South Sudan after 13 years, with the help of an NGO. Convicted of murder, the man consistently maintained his innocence. While the Court of Appeal refused to overturn the decision, the Supreme Court later held for him, on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Condemned for his music
From Nigeria comes another troubling story, this time squarely raising the question of the judicial role in death penalty cases, particularly their concerns for constitutional and procedural safeguards. It concerns a young singer, musician and composer, convicted and sentenced to be hanged for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad. Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, whose contentious song was circulated on WhatsApp, appealed against the Sharia Court decision condemning him to death. The appeal court ordered a re-trial because, in its view, the trial court hearings were ‘characterised by procedural irregularities’.
His lawyers successfully argued that, despite the constitutional right of Nigerians to legal representation, he was not allowed legal representation before or during his original trial.