Africa: Positive death penalty decision undermined by continued executions

In the year since the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights gave fresh impetus to the global campaign for the abolition of the death penalty by declaring the mandatory death penalty “unfair” and a “failure in due process”, at least four countries – Botswana, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan –  have carried out executions, Amnesty International said today.

On 28 November 2019, the African Human Rights Court ruled in a landmark judgement that mandatory imposition of the death penalty was patently unfair, because it denied the convicted person the right to be heard and present mitigating circumstances. In considering the case, brought by Tanzanian death row convict Ally Rajabu against the Government of Tanzania, the court further ruled that the mandatory death sentence fails to follow due process and breaches fair trial standards, by hindering courts from determining proportionate punishment for the facts of the alleged crimes.

The African Human Rights Court broke new ground in highlighting the inherent unfairness of sentencing people to death without granting them the most basic requirement of a fair trial.
Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International's Director for Research and Policy

 “The African Human Rights Court broke new ground in highlighting the inherent unfairness of sentencing people to death without granting them the most basic requirement of a fair trial,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Director for Research and Policy.

“But nearly a year later, Tanzania has yet to implement the judgment. And even more concerning, Botswana, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan have since carried out executions. As the abolitionist movement commemorate the World Day Against the Death Penalty, we urge all member states of the African Union that still retain the death penalty in their laws to abolish the punishment; and pending abolition to immediately establish an official moratorium on executions, and commute, without delay, all death sentences to prison terms.”

The African Human Rights Court also found that hanging as a method of execution amounts to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because of the inherent suffering involved.

The African Human Rights Court also found that hanging as a method of execution amounts to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because of the inherent suffering involved.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

Significant progress towards abolition of the death penalty has been recorded in Africa in the last four decades. While no African country had abolished the death penalty for all crimes 40 years ago, 20 of them have done it to date. Of the remaining countries that retain the death penalty in their laws, 17 are abolitionist in practice; they have not executed anyone in the past 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.

All countries that still retain the death penalty in their laws must respect the right to effective legal representation pending the full abolition of the death penalty.
Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International's Director for Research and Policy

 “All countries that still retain the death penalty in their laws must respect the right to effective legal representation pending the full abolition of the death penalty. Effective legal representation is an essential safeguard against the death penalty; it is a means of protecting the human rights of people facing the death penalty, particularly their right to fair trial and right to life,” said Netsanet Belay.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2015 adopted a Draft Protocol on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Africa, but its consideration by AU member states has since stalled.

For more information, see The State of African Regional Human Rights Bodies and Mechanisms 2019-2020.