Malawi‘s parliament has opened public hearings in Lilongwe, the capital, on a proposal to abolish the death sentence, following the adoption of a report recommending the change last month.
It comes after parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee was directed to seek public input on the issue before potentially amending any laws.
In April of last year, Malawi courts appeared to have abolished the death penalty when a Supreme Court judge heard a petition from a convicted killer and declared that the death penalty undermines the right to life guaranteed by Malawi’s constitution.
The judge then ordered that all cases where the death penalty had been imposed be resentenced.
The Supreme Court, however, released a statement four months later stating that the judge had voiced his own opinion and that the death penalty remained in effect.
There have been increasing calls for the death sentence to be abolished in Malawi, especially as the country is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits the punishment.
The public hearing on Tuesday is the first of three scheduled for later this month in the northern city of Mzuzu and the southern city of Blantyre.
There are currently 25 persons sentenced to death in Malawi, however no one has been executed since 1994.
When Malawi permitted capital punishment, it was once a mandatory punishment for murder and treason. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Malawi ruled in the case of Kafantayeni and Others v. Attorney General that it was unconstitutional to make the death penalty mandatory for murder or treason convictions.
The ruling allowed judges to have discretion when deciding on sentences for murder convicts or those convicted of treason. In deciding on an appropriate sentence in a case, judges were to consider whether or not the inmate had a significant prior criminal record, mental illness, poverty, drug or alcohol intoxication, old age, youth, trauma, or a “sincere belief in witchcraft” at the time of the crime and/or at sentencing.
Four years after the court decision outlawing the mandatory death penalty, the Malawian Penal Code was updated to reflect the introduction of sentencing discretion in murder and treason cases. The death penalty was an optional punishment for rape, armed robbery, and burglary, all of which could also be punished with life imprisonment. No convicts sentenced to death in Malawi since 1995 were sentenced for any crime other than murder.
Malawi also prohibited the death penalty for convicts who were under 18 at the commission of their crimes, as well as for pregnant women, inmates with intellectual disabilities, or inmates suffering from a mental illness that prohibited them from understanding their actions.
All death row inmates were housed in Malawi’s only maximum security prison, located in Zomba. Executions took place at the prison in Zomba as well
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