Verdict on beauty queen should offend us

Former prisons beauty queen Ruth Wanjiku Kamande gestures in court after she was sentenced to death by a Nairobi court on July 19, 2018. She was found guilty of murdering her boyfriend Farid Mohammed in 2015. [George Njunge/ Standard]
Justice Jessie Lesiit handed 24-year-old Ruth Kamande a death sentence on Thursday. The judgement plunges Kenya backwards into the company of a small number of countries still using the death penalty.

The sentence offends our Bill of Rights and directly challenges our national values.

Three years ago, the 21-year-old Ruth stabbed Farid Mohamed 25 times with a knife in a crime of jealousy and anger. She argued in defense that he had sex with her knowing he was HIV positive after cheating on her with other women.

Despite being a first-time offender and while being remanded has shown evidence of good behavior, adoption of the Islamic faith and undertaking a university degree course in information technology, Ruth was sentenced to death.

Punishment by death has existed in very limited cases in African culture. It was only in 1893 that the mass practice of punishment was introduced to protect the colonial state.

Over the next 60 years, the colonial state hung 459 people. Like American slavery, hangings were organised to protect white European women from rape by black African men. The real wrath of the colonial state was however reserved for treason.

From 1952 to 1956, the colonial state killed one man or women every day in their attempt to defeat the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and the mau mau.

It is now 31 years since 1982 coup plotters Hezikiah Ochuka and Oteyo Okumu were found guilty of treason and hung.

Until last year, our courts have preferred mandatory death sentences for robbery with violence, murder and treason. For a decade now, the Executive has progressively reduced these sentences.

In 2009 and 2016 Presidents Kibaki and Kenyatta commuted 6,747 sentences to life imprisonment. Their actions were consistent with Bill of Rights and international standards that question the use of death penalty.

There are at least three reasons why the precedence set by Thursday’s judgement should offend us. The right to a fair trial and re-trial is an important pillar of our Constitution.

Weak forensic capacities, unreliable police investigations and the ease at which our judicial system can be compromised is another reason that we should oppose the use of the death penalty.

It is simply too final. In the case of Ruth Kamande, there are other considerations. She was young, extremely disturbed by the fear and anger of being infected by HIV/Aids and has since demonstrated good behavior and a willingness to reform while in custody.

A small number of countries including the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan still apply the death penalty. The USA has legally executed more men and women than the entire African continent. For two thirds of the world however, the “eye for an eye” argument no longer holds.

Imprisonment and corrective rehabilitation has proved more effective in reducing criminality and violence than more violence by the state. These countries have moved to abolish the death penalty.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory death penalty sentencing but ruled that the death penalty was still lawful. A taskforce on the Implementation of the Supreme Court Ruling on the Death Penalty is consulting the public on whether to review the sentence altogether.

Ruth has 14 days to appeal the ruling. If the ruling is upheld and she is committed, the Presidency should commute her sentence and support her to continue the course of rehabilitation.

That Ruth killed Farid, his family still grieves and justice must be served, is not in question. What is in question is the use of the death penalty. It is simply a cruel, outdated and ineffective law to deal with violent crimes or treason.

I was 19 when dictatorial President Sani Abacha hung Nigerian environmental activist and writer Ken Saro Wiwa.

 I still vividly remember the anger of Africa and the Commonwealth at the time. It is more than 20 years since that sad moment. It is now time Muthoni Njau-Kimani’s Taskforce guides our nation to take the death penalty off our statutes and abolish its use.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton

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