Why execute broken persons? Let's abolish the death penalty

Inmates on Death Penalty listen to speeches during the 15th World Day against Death Penalty at Kamiti Maximum Prison. [Boniface Okendo,Standard]

It’s been 35 years since the Kenyan state legally executed anyone for a capital offence but, for the 600 human beings currently on death row, three decades is too long to stay walking dead. A new opinion poll released this week suggests that it may be time to abolish the death penalty.

The Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights released its national opinion poll this Wednesday. The survey comes at a time the world is gradually moving toward abolishing this practice. 579 people were executed and 2,052 were sentenced to death last year according to Amnesty International. The figures could be higher as China secretly carries out executions but does not publicly release its figures.  

While these figures reflect a 20 per cent increase in 2020 executions, there is a historically downward global trend. Three countries – Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – now account for 80 per cent of all killings. Twenty-two African countries, Chad, and Sierra Leone among the most recent have scrapped this colonial practice from their statutes. Fifteen African countries still retain the law and seventeen, Kenya included, no longer carry out death sentences.  

Conducted by InfoTrack, the Death Penalty Project and Oxford University, the state-commissioned poll finds that 40 per cent now want the state to abolish the practice. A further 10 per cent are undecided whether it is an effective crime deterrent. Rather than execute violent criminals, the public is calling for increased investment in national values and ethics, poverty reduction and effective policing.

State execution is ninth on the public’s strategies to bring down serious crime. The public is now calling for better-resourced and more effective rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. Correctional justice rather than summary executions is the way forward.

What has changed for many Kenyans? The survey suggests that Kenyans are increasingly worried that state executions violate the right to life and Kenya is falling behind in a world that is increasingly abolitionist.

Thirdly, Kenyans are concerned innocent people may be executed by mistake or without considering mitigating circumstances. A case in point is security guard Michael Wamuongo. Wamuongo was 78 when he was arrested and sentenced for robbery with violence in 2009. It took nearly four years for International Justice Mission lawyers to prove he was innocent and for him to finally walk free in 2013. 

This shift in public opinion is significant. Political parties and their candidates must factor this into their policy manifestos. A case in point is Roots Party flag-bearer and presidential candidate George Wajackoyah. If elected, he states his government will carry out death sentences. His policy position ignores this shift in public opinion. It also contradicts his primary campaign agenda to legalise marijuana and its appeal to young working class and unemployed men.

It is precisely this constituency that death penalty sentencing has hunted for the last century. Studies have shown that most serious criminals have lost the battle against toxic mental health and toxic substance abuse. Most grew up homeless or in households without strong bonds, opportunity, or hope. As legendary US abolitionist Bryan Stevenson argues, why would civilised societies execute broken men and women?

Some now suggest the death penalty should be substituted with life sentences and no option of parole. Life sentences without pardons are simply bloodless executions, former death row prisoner and now abolitionist advocate Wilson Kinyua argued at the launch.

Instead, the Judiciary should uphold the spirit of the landmark 2017 Muruatetu judgement that declared mandatory death sentencing unconstitutional. Energised by the recent change in public opinion, elected representatives to the 13th National Assembly or the new cabinet could introduce a Bill striking out the 130-year-old article. Kenya has been an abolitionist state for 35 years in practice. There is only a small step ahead of us to strike out this cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment altogether. Let’s do it.

 Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and Maurice Oginga is an Amnesty International Kenya member.

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