HARARE - The Constitutional Court yesterday reserved ruling in an application in which an inmate is challenging the constitutionality of life in prison, arguing it amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment.
Obadiah Makoni, through his lawyer Tendai Biti, who was instructed by legal watchdog Veritas Zimbabwe, argued that requiring a prisoner to spend his whole life in prison was not compatible with the new Constitution.
In Zimbabwe, a sentence of life is imprisonment for the rest of that person’s life, means he or she cannot be released on parole.
Convicted murderers who are not sentenced to death are often sentenced to life imprisonment.
The applicant, who is serving a life sentence, argues that it amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment to keep him in prison without any hope of release on parole, despite the many years he has served, however good his behaviour and however much he may have repented and reformed.
Prison conditions in Zimbabwe are so severe that a long sentence may be tantamount to a death warrant, he further argued.
The applicant’s argument is that if it would be cruel and inhuman to execute him — which it would be — it is equally cruel and inhuman to imprison him until he dies through neglect or starvation.
His lawyer urged the government to set up an independent functional review board that deals with cases of people that would have been sentenced to life in prison.
“In Germany, they insist on judicial review after a period of 15 years. A sentence of life in prison in Zimbabwe breaches the provisions of Sections 51 and 53 of the Constitution,” Biti said.
He said other countries provided for parole to prisoners who would have served longer and had exhibited good behaviour.
He further argued that the Prison Act did not offer hope for release of prisoners on parole, adding that the State was locking a prisoner and throwing away the keys.
Biti urged the court to take a generous and transformative approach to the issue.
He said that the state of the country’s prisons was not conducive and permanently subjected prisoners to the disproportional dire conditions.
“Punishment should be transformed from being retributive to being rehabilitative,” Biti said.
He said that presidential powers to pardon prisoners were not sufficient, as it was discretionary and did little to the principle of separation of powers.
However, Mike Chimombe, who appeared on behalf of the State, said that the prison conditions were not as deplorable as had been elaborated by Biti.
“The conditions are not ideal but the prisons are in a fair state. The State is doing all it can to improve the conditions,” Chimombe said.
Chief justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, leading the full Constitutional Court bench, indefinitely reserved ruling in the matter.