Malawi rules death penalty unconstitutional after decades-long campaign

On 29 April 2021, the Supreme Court in Malawi ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in the country. This landmark judgment paves the way for all those sentenced to death to receive new sentences in line with international law and for the death penalty to be consigned to the history books. A life sentence is now the most severe sentence that can be given. The ruling was praised by activists and leaders across the world, including Amnesty International and the European Union.

Trust grantee Reprieve has been working alongside partners for more than a decade to abolish the death penalty in the country. The organisation works with those that have suffered human rights abuses – often at the hands of their own or others’ governments. Specifically, they defend and protect people who are facing the death penalty; people detained without charge or trial in Guantánamo Bay or elsewhere in the world; people who have been tortured; and people who have been killed or terrorized by lethal drones.

Their efforts in Malawi were bolstered when President Chakwera publicly announced his support for the historic judgement, in a statement celebrating the independence of the judiciary.

In 2007, Malawi’s High Court struck down the mandatory death penalty for its incompatibility with rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Following that judgement, Reprieve formed a coalition of stakeholders in Malawi in 2014 called the Malawi Resentencing Project, which helped implement the High Court’s decision and support the process of resentencing. That project secured and supported new hearings for 168 eligible people. The project was one of the five winners of the World Justice Project’s ‘World Justice Challenge’ in 2019 for its impact in advancing access to justice and the rule of law.

To date, more than 145 individuals formerly sentenced to the mandatory death penalty have had their death sentences overturned and have been released. Reprieve and its partners are now focussed on ensuring that the final resentencing hearings take place to remove the last men and women from Malawi’s death row, and that this decision is enacted into law. It is also hoped that the ruling will have an impact across Africa, with Kenya being a particular country of concern.

Alexious Kamangila, a Reprieve fellow, said on BBC’s “Focus on Africa” show said, “Malawi’s pioneering work has informed neighbouring countries undertaking progressive criminal justice reform; [this] decision is a milestone in Africa’s turn away from the death penalty.”

Return to grantee stories