On July 13, 2016, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe (ConCourt) found that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional as it violated the rights to equal protection and human dignity and the prohibition on cruel and degrading punishment. The decision, Makoni v. Commissioner of Prisons, is undoubtedly a victory for human rights, due to the dismal state of prison conditions in Zimbabwe and the emotional and psychological harm caused by indeterminate sentences. In its decision, the ConCourt cited a wide range of jurisprudence from foreign and international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, South African Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Namibia, and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London to discern a global trend toward rehabilitative criminal sentences. Many of these foreign and international legal sources were brought to the ConCourt’s attention by transnational human rights lawyers themselves in their Heads of Argument, underscoring the important role that advocates play in the diffusion of international human rights norms.
On 16 March 2013, Zimbabwean voters overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution, which contains a right to life provision that dramatically scaled back the scope of the death penalty. The new constitution restricts the death penalty only to aggravated homicide and requires a judge to consider all mitigating factors in order to dispense a death sentence. The death penalty is a prohibited sentence for women and persons under the age 21 or over the age 70. The new constitution also establishes a constitutional right for prisoners to seek commutation or pardon from the executive. The death penalty was abolished for non-homicide offences, including treason, a notoriously politicised charge in recent years. Newspaper reports indicated that the Cabinet would review the cases of each of the current 72 death row inmates, even though a new hangman was hired in February 2013 after a twelve-year long search. The two women on death row would have their sentences automatically commuted.
Late at night on 23 August2012 the President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, ordered the executions of nine death row inmates despite international condemnation and even division in his own cabinet. At least three of the death sentences were for the crime of treason; the remaining cases involved murder. Two of the nine were Senegalese nationals, and at least one had been on death row since before the current death penalty law entered into force. These cases are constitutionally troubling and may erode the rule of law in The Gambia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s smallest mainland country with a population of 1,3-million.