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Saturday, May 23, 2015
- Botswana was in the international spotlight in 2001 after it hurriedly sentenced and secretly hanged Marriette Sonjaleen Bosch, a white South African woman convicted of murder.
Five years on, human rights activists say very little has changed. Fast convictions, hasty executions and inhumane treatment of the prisoner’s family – all hallmarks of Bosch’s case – continue. In fact, the government is unapologetic about it.
“There isn’t any change, none at all,” presidential spokesman Jeff Ramsay told IPS.
He said the status quo would remain for a long time to come. His bullishness about the government’s position is no surprise. President Festus Mogae is a confessed “retributionist.”
The landlocked southern African country has hanged 39 people since gaining independence in 1966. It is one of 35 African nations which still retains and uses the death penalty.
The latest execution was carried out on Modisane Ping, who was hanged Apr. 1. Ping, who was found guilty of killing his girlfriend and her six-year-old son, was the only death row inmate left.
Bosch’s case was no different, except that it helped to highlight racism, Ramsay said. Bosch only attracted international attention because of her colour, he maintained.
Since she was hanged, Botswana has executed five citizens, including a black South African, Lehlohonolo Kobedi, convicted of murdering a police sergeant. None has received the attention that Bosch’s execution did.
Bosch was convicted of premeditated murder of her friend Maria Woolmarans, whose husband, Tinnie, she later married. She was executed on Mar. 31, 2001.
Reacting to questions about Bosch just three days after she had been hanged, President Mogae told a press conference, “Remember, for us it was a murder case, full stop… Maybe you will convince us (differently) some day later.”
Yet so far, the “some day later” that Mogae talked about is nowhere on the horizon. The government of Botswana has not been swayed on the death penalty. And campaigners for the abolition of it have no clue whether anyone out there is listening.
“The State has blatantly disregarded appeals for a moratorium or abolition of the death penalty in Botswana,” Alice Mogwe, director of Ditshwanelo, the Botswana Centre for Human Rights, told IPS.
Mogwe regretted that the government used Bosch’s colour to deflect attention from the issue of the death penalty. However, she said, Bosch’s subsequent hasty execution, only two months after she lost her appeal, helped to put the issue into the public sphere.
Ditshwanelo is advocating for the abolition of the death penalty in accordance with internationally-agreed human rights standards prohibiting all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.
Bosch’s movie-style ordeal started at 6 a.m. Friday, Mar. 30, 2001, when she was served her execution letter.
When her husband Tinnie Woolmarans called authorities at the maximum security prison in Gaborone to fix a date to visit her later that day, he was not informed of the pending execution. Instead, he was told there was an ongoing inspection at the prison and that he should come on Monday instead.
He never could have thought the worst: His wife’s fate had been decided; she would be hanged the next morning.
Though prison officials would not let her husband and family visit her, they did allow Bosch time to spend her last hours writing letters which would be delivered after her death. They were her last words.
“They did not want me to see you,” she wrote in one of the letters pledging her undying love for her husband and pleading with him to take care of the family.
The Commissioner of Prisons and Rehabilitation, in a memo announcing the execution on Mar. 31, made a hand-written note: “The announcement should be made on Monday morning, the 2nd of April 2001 at any time from 6 a.m.”
The family learnt of her execution the same way as everybody else – on the lunch news bulletin two days after she had been hanged.
Bosch’s case is no different from many others who were hanged before or after her execution. Her plea to President Mogae to exercise his “prerogative of mercy” to save her life was never answered. Neither was Ping’s, who was executed last month.
Human rights campaigners, including Ditshwanelo, continue to complain about secretive and hasty executions, refusals to grant condemned prisoners a stay of execution and the poor treatment of their families.
“The government has never exercised the mercy rule nor communicated that the plea has been refused until after the execution,” said Kgafela Kgafela, a human rights lawyer.
Ditshwanelo director Mogwe said it is abhorrent that the state continues to execute people in deep secrecy. Such an act punishes families who were not responsible for the crime, she added.
“We believe that a lack of transparency of procedures is a serious threat to democracy and good governance,” she said.
Commenting on the latest hanging, Mogwe added, “The prison authorities behave in an unnecessarily cruel manner towards family members when carrying out death sentences.”
Family members asking permission to see their loved one, are told of “an inspection” only to learn the following Monday that the person had been executed, she said.
This is what happened in the execution of Bosch, Kobedi and, most recently, Ping.
“A lot of people didn’t know that the family cannot even attend the burial of a condemned prisoner,” Mogwe told IPS. Nor are they allowed to visit their graves.
Mogwe also argued that despite the many executions, the death penalty has not reduced the murder rate in Botswana. “Serious attention should be paid to the underlying causes of crime and solutions found,” she said.
Police records show that 1,500 people have been murdered here in the last five years. By the end of April, 47 homicides had been reported in 2006.
Seema Kandelia and Nicola Browne from the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies said at a Southern African regional death penalty workshop in Gaborone last November that they advocate for public education on the death penalty.
In a paper presented at the workshop, they argued that governments often cite public support as justification for retaining the death penalty. Such support can dwindle with proper education, they said.
“In all our work, we stress the importance of introducing effective, proportional and humane sentences, otherwise there is a danger of countries turning to the next draconian punishment: whole of life,” they told the workshop.
They acknowledged, however, that the issue of victim support could be a major omission from the rhetoric of abolitionists. It is an issue exploited by politicians.
“There is also the need for victim support but it also forgets the elements of natural justice, namely consistency and proportionality,” they said.
Ramsay, the presidential spokesman, said there is overwhelmingly support for the death penalty in Botswana.
But Bosch may live to haunt the very government that ended her life. She never pleaded guilty and there is still a body of opinion that the killer of her friend is still at large.
Her lawyer, Fashole Luke, speaking at a debate on the death penalty said: “When a mistake is made, it can’t be corrected.”