Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY-GHANA: Public Lets Execution Call Pass

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Jun 26 2008 (IPS) - A senior Ghanaian justice department official has expressed surprise that the government has failed to ban capital punishment, implicitly censuring lawmakers for their recent endorsement of two new pro-death penalty judges to the Supreme Court.

The current law permitting the death penalty was “obnoxious”, the deputy attorney general, Kwame Osei-Bempah, told IPS. “There is no reason why it should remain on our law books.”

He added: “Unfortunately, no government has had the political will to raise the issue for discussion.”

The official’s remarks were made after four presidential appointees to the Supreme Court were grilled in a public vetting process by the Appointments Committee of Parliament on May 27. All four former appeal court judges were approved as new Supreme Court justices.

Two of the justices – Rose Owusu and Paul Baffoe-Bonnie – told lawmakers they did not see anything wrong with the death penalty. Justice Owusu specifically endorsed the Biblical saying “A tooth for a tooth”.

“He who kills must be killed,” she insisted, claiming that the Bible was categorical on the issue when Jesus said, “Anyone who draws the sword must die by the sword.”

Justice Owusu contended that although there had been reviews of past death sentences – the last death sentences carried out in Ghana was in 1993 – this had not had a positive influence on the condemned.

She added that crime could only be fought by being tough on offenders. The state had a constitutional mandate to see a death sentence was carried out.

Justice Baffoe-Bonnie expressed more muted pro-capital punishment views.

But two Supreme Court nominees – Justices Jones Dotse and Anim Yeboah – said they supported the abolition of the death penalty.

Both raised the possibility of judicial error and innocent people being executed.

“Some innocent people who have suffered from the death penalty only to be exonerated later,” said Justice Jones Victor Dotse.

This view was also supported by Justice Anim Yeboah, adding that the death penalty “did not address the critical issue of deterring crime”.

In an interview with IPS after the hearing, Accra civil servant, Peter Bonsu suggested Justice Dotse may have been alluding to some specific Ghanaian cases when he spoke of the danger of sending innocents to their death.

“In 1979, General Afrifa and other generals were executed by firing squad for some spurious political crimes. But years later their bodies were exhumed and given befitting burials …” Bonsu said.

General Afrifa, a former military head of state, was executed together with six other Army officers during a military coup. They were condemned to death by a so-called People’s Court. When President John Agyekum Kufuor came to power he set up a Seven Member Committee under Marshal M.A. Otu to review the case. This recommended the reburial of the generals.

Attempts by IPS to get MPs to comment on the justices’ views on the death penalty were met by a wall of silence. “It is a very controversial issue,” one MP said on condition of anonymity.

Nana Oye Lithur, African Regional Coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) expressed surprise at the little public outrage voiced over Justice Owusu’s strong support for carrying out death sentences.

Lithur attributed this to the fact that the death penalty was not a “priority” issue for the government. This was because “no one talks about it,” she explained.

The CHRI had also not given the death penalty serious attention, she conceded.

But this was about to change. The CHRI was “committed to initiate a project to sensitise the public on what it (the death penalty) means and why it should not remain on the country’s law books,” she told IPS.

Some time ago, Amnesty International had raised the death penalty issue in the public domain but little had resulted, she said.

Bonsu said that Ghanaians needed to be made aware that although the death penalty was not being carried out, the punishment still remained on the statute books.

Justice department officials were unable to provide IPS with current statistics on the number of recent death sentences passed by Ghanaian courts. There were also no readily-available statistics on the number currently on death row awaiting reprieve.

Records kept by the police and passed to the attorney general’s office were not the best, explained one official, declining to be named.

Ghana still retains the death penalty for three crimes, armed robbery, treason and murder with intent.

The last executions were in July 1993, when 12 convicted of armed robbery or murder were executed by firing squad.

Ghana abstained during the U.N. General Assembly Dec 2007 vote on a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

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