Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY-KENYA: Call for Abolition As Thousands Await Execution

Rosalia Omungo

NAIROBI, Jul 9 2007 (IPS) - Politicians from leading parties and prominent human rights activists all seem to agree that the time has come for Kenya to abolish capital punishment. But as they continue to talk, courts continue to pass down death sentences, swelling the numbers on death row.

On Jun. 21, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Assistant Minister Danson Mungatana told journalists here that the government was committed to abolishing the death penalty. “I am aware there is an advanced plan to that effect,” he said in answer to a question specifically directed at the administration’s position on the death penalty.

But he gave no target date for abolition, only adding: “All this is at a preparatory stage. At the correct time it will finally have to be resolved in parliament.”

The last known official executions in Kenya were in 1987 during Daniel Arap Moi’s time in office. Among those hanged then were Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu, accused of masterminding the Aug. 1, 1982 attempted coup.

Since then thousands have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution. IPS was unable to obtain figures from the prisons department for the exact number on death row at the time of publishing this article. But in the five years from 2001 to 2005, 3,741 were sentenced to be hanged, an average of 748 a year, according to the department’s statistics.

In the same period less than 200 death sentences were commuted to life sentences on appeal.

In 2003 President Mwai Kibaki also commuted the death sentences of 223 inmates. One of those passed over then for a presidential amnesty because his case file had been lost was Samson Ochanda Owuor, one of the oldest and longest-serving death row inmates, according to press reports. He had been convicted of robbery with violence in 1988. Besides murder and treason, robbery and attempted robbery with violence are capital offences in Kenya.

Environment Minister Kivutha Kibwana told IPS that he was one of those in the government calling for the abolition of the death penalty. “I believe even if someone has killed another, you do not correct the situation by killing another person. That leaves two dead people,” he said.

Prominent opposition politicians have also expressed their support for abolition in statements to the press. This suggests that a government bill to abolish capital punishment would receive cross-party support.

“The death penalty is not a deterrent.and should be abolished,” Anyang’ Nyongo from the Orange Democratic Movement – which includes members of the former ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), and the Liberal Democratic Party – said recently. “Convicts should be given a chance to work and get to learn skills. This way, they would get out of jail useful.”

Currently death penalty inmates are not allowed to work. This means that they have no savings or work experience to prepare them for life outside prison in the event of release.

William Ruto, a member of parliament for KANU – now the official oppostion party – was even more outspoken, calling the death penalty a “vengeful” sentence that served no helpful purpose. “We need a rehabilitative approach,” he added.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, an independent public body set up in 2003 to advise the government on protecting and promoting human rights, has also added its influential voice to the debate, recommending that parliament urgently take action to abolish capital punishment.

“Even though it is in our legal books and laws, it is not the right thing for us to be doing,” Maina Kiai, chairman of the commission, said at the launch of a position paper on capital punishment in April.

The death penalty should be removed from the constitution and laws amended to bring them in line with this change.

The commission also called for an immediate moratorium on death sentences to prevent further additions to the number on death row. Those already facing capital punishment should have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by presidential decree.

Haroun Ndubi, executive director of Haki Focus, a human rights organisation, questioned whether the death penalty was helping to reduce violent crime, which is on the rise in Kenya – and suggested it may even be contributing to an increase in murders.

There were “a lot of young people” involved in carjackings who killed their victims to eliminate anyone who could give evidence against them in capital trials for robbery with violence, he told IPS. “They kill … for fear of conviction if the witness were to live to testify,” Ndubi said, noting that the abolition of the death penalty would reduce the number of such murders.

He also raised doubts about the guilt of some of those currently on death row. There had been claims of false accusations, and convictions without adequate evidence, he said.

Ndubi added that it was “inhuman and degrading” to convict people and then leave them on death row for years on end, living in constant fear of execution.

This issue was also raised by Mungatana when he spoke to the press. He said the major issue to be decided was the fate of those already sentenced to death, suggesting that commuting these sentences could be the first step towards abolition of the death penalty in Kenya.

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