Summary: Zimbabwe constitutional court declares life without parole to be cruel and inhuman punishment

13th September 2016: The Zimbabwe Constitutional Court has declared life sentences without the possibility of parole to be both cruel and inhuman punishment and a violation of human dignity. In the opinion of all eight judges, the “unavoidable cruelty of incarceration”, without a prisoner being able to believe in the realistic possibility of his eventual liberation, would “unnecessarily aggravate and dehumanise the delivery of corrective justice”.

SRT grantee the Death Penalty Project provided expert legal assistance to local lawyer Tendai Biti and Zimbabwean NGO Veritas in the case. This included drafting heads of arguments and submissions, and the provision of legal resources and material.

The applicant, Obediah Makoni, who has spent more than 20 years behind bars after being sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 19, recently challenged the country’s parole regime which excluded all life sentence prisoners, meaning that under his sentence he had no real prospect of ever being released.

In a landmark decision on 13 July 2016 the constitutional court ruled that periodic reviews of detention and rehabilitation programmes with a view to reintegration into society must be provided equally to prisoners serving indefinite terms of imprisonment. It held that any imprisonment that continued unreasonably – that is, beyond the duration of detention necessary to fulfil the aims of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation – was liable to be quashed by the courts. Consequently, the parole regime must be interpreted as applying to all long-term prisoners and not just those with fixed-term sentences.

The Court ordered that a full inquiry and report by the Parole Board be prepared to determine Mr Makoni’s aptitude and suitability for parole.

This decision adds to the increasing number of jurisdictions worldwide in which sentences that are irreducible – such as being passed for natural life or without parole – have been found to contravene fundamental human rights.

Full press release from the Death Penalty Project’s website:

The text of the Constitutional Court’s ruling is available here.

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