Death penalty: Will Malawi join the modern world in abolishing it?

Recent press reporting suggested that a Malawian had been executed in Indonesia. The case in question now seems to have involved a person of a different nationality who had somehow obtained a Malawian passport. But what if this person had been Malawian? What would the Malawian family, government and society response have been? Perhaps they would have made representations to the authorities to prevent the execution. If so, Malawi would be on stronger ground if it had itself abolished the death penalty.

Michael Nevin, British High Commissioner to Malawi

Michael Nevin, British High Commissioner to Malawi

2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the last executions to take place in the UK when two men were hanged for the murder of the same man. Two months later a new Government was elected and in 1965, Parliament suspended the death penalty, abolishing it in 1969.

This was not an easy process. At the time it was abolished in the UK, the death penalty enjoyed widespread public support. Parliament decided to act contrary to the popular view, in response to a number of high profile cases where innocent people were executed. The UK Parliament took the view that sooner or later innocent people will be killed because of mistakes or flaws in the justice system. Ultimately, it was the responsibility of Government to take the lead in protecting its citizens.

Last year also marked 50 years of Malawi’s independence which stimulated calls for reform and transformation. This included calls for constitutional reform. If reform is to be delivered, perhaps it can finally include complete abolition of the death penalty.

No execution has taken place in Malawi since 1992, since when there has been a de facto moratorium on its application. Following a 2007 court decision, an amendment in 2011 repealed the Penal Code’s previous mandatory requirement that the death penalty be imposed for murder and treason (a point to note in light of treason charges previously brought against the current President and others). The UK welcomes the moratorium and urges the authorities to speed up the re-sentencing process of the 192 prisoners given mandatory death sentences prior to 2007.

But we encourage Malawi to go further. We believe the death penalty has no place in the modern world as the increasing trend of countries abolishing it demonstrates. About 160 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice: of those, 98 have abolished it altogether. And this is a global trend: most of Latin America, African states such as South Africa, Rwanda, Benin and Burundi, and Asian countries such as Nepal, Mongolia and Cambodia, have abolished the death penalty.

The EU is similarly committed to abolition: no country can join the EU if it retains capital punishment and no EU country can extradite a person to another country where they may face capital punishment.

Like the UK, these countries believe that the death penalty undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.

It is not possible to avoid errors from any penal system. For example, around 150 people have now been exonerated from death row in the United States, who would otherwise have been executed. Last year, the world’s longest serving death row prisoner was released from custody in Japan after 45 years following a court ruling that his original conviction was unsafe.

We believe also that capital punishment is incompatible with human rights, violating the right to life, the most basic of all human rights; the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane of degrading treatment or punishment; and undermining human dignity inherent to every human being.

As to its deterrent effect, there is no convincing evidence of this. This should be clear when you consider that a number of the states retaining the death penalty consistently record among the highest homicide rates in the world. Examples include Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad. Louisiana, which retains the death penalty, has led the US murder rate statistics for over 20 years.

It is for the Government of Malawi to determine whether it wishes to join this growing group of countries committed to abolishing the death penalty. The Law Commission in its 2007 review of the Constitution stated that “the populace of Malawi was not ready to have the death sentence abolished as this would be taken to mean that murder was sanctioned by the law. The Commission arrived at this conclusion after considering the overwhelming response from rural areas against the abolition of the death sentence”.  But that was then. This is now.

We acknowledge that many people – including in the UK – support capital punishment in principle. The UK’s own path to abolition was a long one. Our own experience suggests that public support tends to fall as the public becomes better informed about the issue – in particular about the lack of evidence to prove that the death penalty has any deterrent effect, and the possibility of miscarriages of justice.

And there are many areas on which the public may have a different view from government – not many people, for example, would instinctively wish to pay taxes, while many would want to fix the exchange rate and fuel prices. But that does not mean it is right. Governments do many things in the best interests of the country that are not necessarily popular. It is for governments to lead, not just serve, their societies.

  • The author is British High Commissioner to Malawi
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17 thoughts on “Death penalty: Will Malawi join the modern world in abolishing it?”

  1. mmihavani says:

    Washington – A death-row inmate in Texas who confessed to murdering three elderly people with a screwdriver for just $100 was executed on Wednesday, US prison authorities said.

    Arnold Prieto, 41, was declared dead at 18:31 at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, said Texas department of criminal justice spokesperson Jason Clark.

    Prieto’s is the fourth US execution this year.

    He was sentenced to death for the triple murder committed during a 1993 robbery when he and two brothers were invited to the siblings’ great-aunt and great-uncle’s house for breakfast, and attacked the elderly couple.

    The 72-year-old man and his 62-year-old wife were killed, along with another 92-year-old woman who was in the house.

    Prieto and one of the brothers attacked the three with a screwdriver. Under the influence of cocaine, the trio of friends ransacked the house, stealing jewellery and money.

    Splitting cash found in a purse, “we each got about $100. I also picked out a gold chain, small, like for a child, with a crucifix pendant,” Prieto said in his confession.

    Several days later, one of the brothers gave him “a couple of earrings and a couple of necklaces” which he pawned for $140.

    In an unusual move, Prieto did not appeal his death sentence to the US Supreme Court.

    One accomplice, a minor at the time, was sentenced to life in prison. The second brother was never charged.

  2. What does the Bible say about murder,that’s a question you supposed to ask yourself
    God did not forbid to execute a murderer hence do not lobby Malawi to abolish God’s will? ,don’t go against Allah’s will unless if you’re atheist
    you’re in no position to tell us what to do since you stopped giving us your conditional aid

  3. Mmihavani says:

    Royal Family: Will UK join the modern world in abolishing it? In this era when everybody is treated as equal why should UK treat some few individuals as special as God simply because of their birth? Why should they be de-facto kings and queens? Nobody decides where to be born so do not treat others as commoners and others special. I implore UK to join the modern world by abolishing the royal family. Let those boys work like anybody else.

  4. Ababa Thamangiwa. says:

    Micheal Nevin, you are absolutely right that there so many decisions/policies that govern implement that are not necessarily popular with the ppo but they are implemented stil for the good of the people. On death penalty, you and your government must accept that as much as you would want us to abolish capital panishment, the reality is such pronouncements will send a wrong signal altogether to the populace which is largely illiterate. So while abolishing it would be a popular thing with you it will grossly undermine security of the country. in this case government should maintain the unpopular move (in the eyes of the international comunity and the violent generations at home) as lon a it is deemed good for the people of Malawi. Mr Nevin should understand that whike the world is becoming one village, Britain and other western countries are not given a passport to originate and spread policies in the vilage. that kind of approach is reminicent of anauthority that lacks respect. Leave other countries to make the decisions that are in tandem with the aspirations of its people.

  5. Ababa Thamangiwa. says:

    Micheal Nevin, you are absolutely right that there so many decisions/policies that govern implement that are not necessarily popular with the ppo but they are implemented stil for the good of the people. On death penalty, you and your government must accept that as much as you would want us to abolish capital panishment, the reality is such pronouncements will send a wrong signal altogether to the populace which is largely illiterate. So while abolishing it would be a popular thing with you it will grossly undermine security of the country. in this case government should maintain the unpopular move (in the eyes of the international comunity and the violent generations at home) as lon a it is deemed good for the people of Malawi. Mr Nevin should understand that whike the world is becoming one village, Britain and other western countries are not given a passport to originate and

  6. Nebraska says:

    I can only agree with the author if he condemns USA, Britain and their allies for killing Sadam Hussen, Bin Laden and innocent Palestinians.

  7. By your excellency’s definition, and reading the document on the attached link done by “The Washington Post”, ( it would be tempting to think that you categorize Malawi and USA the same, as not being “Modern”.

    I feel there is a lot of room to argue as to whether in general the dream of democracy is delivering over all, or giving rise to leadership which is in general corrupt, cannot move nations forward and in turn leading to global insecurity.

    In fact if we were talking about being modern, then lets look to the UN, which has a lot of modernizing to do. I feel the greatest threat to global peace in the next two decade will not come from nations rising against each other, you just have to switch on your TV to find out what is. The UN has to be able to take into consideration the ever shifting dynamic of peace. A case in point would be the state of the Middle East, and sad to say it in that it is not politically correct, but “Libya”.

    To be modern, then you have to recognize the rise of China, whom I feel would not share your idea of being “modern”.

    I feel as a nation we have bigger issues to deal with, with urgency, for example the cashgate issue which is not being dealt with timely and adequately. I have not heard of any amounts being recovered and finding their way back to state coffers. This is a serious example where I feel any serious minded leader would have used the death penalty somehow. How can any sane person steal billions of Kwacha in more or less the poorest country in the world. But again, I guess this is the high price we have to pay to be so called “MODERN”.

    There is the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, amongst the many other pressing issues.

    Though I respect your ideas, I believe there are alternatives, and that some sweeping statements and stereo types are dangerous.

  8. brutsha says:

    It’s interesting! Do you know that there are 32 states in the US, the model of democracy do still mete death sentence ? Eg Arizona , Nebraska , Texas, Nevada, Virginia , Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc . Do you know that to date 13 states in the US ban same sex marriage? And 10 states still have reservations on abortion ? Then why is the position Africa should take on this issues be dictated by the west?

  9. The Patriot says:

    Your excellence the High Commissioner, thank you for your article but I strongly disagree with you on several points!
    1. The title”join the modern world”! Do you mean by having the Capital punishment in our constitution were not modern? I disagree because even the most modern countries actually the top 3 economies of the world have the death penalty ( 1. USA. 2 . China. 3. Japan).
    2. Countries like in Latin America or The Philippines where death penalty was abolished have high murder rates. Actually there may be no evidence that death penalty deters murder but there is a strong link between abolishing the death penalty and rising murder rates eg Mexico, Philippines
    3. On abolishing the death penalty as a condition for joining the EU! Your excellency as a citizen of the Royal British Empire you may not know this but each time you rich and powerful countries use your economic might to impose your ideas on others it really sulks! It is better to debate with us from the “primitive ” world rather attach aid or joining of groups to impose your will on poor countries.
    Last but not list a quote from someone “top dog countries should not use their economic might or military might to maintain their top dog status but use the above to prepare themselves for the time when they will not be top dog!”. China is rising and during my life time We will see EU and USA PLAYING SECOND FIDDLE and then you will see who is modern!!

  10. Kenkkk says:

    Although the reasons given for abolishing the death penalty seems reasonable but we tend to forget the victims and their families in say murder cases.

    I consider death penalty for drug of offences as stupid and barbaric. But murder is a different issue, we have to consider more the victims and their families plight and not support murderers.

    Where it is proven beyond reasonable doubt as the murderer, then deAth penalty is right answer for the murderer.

    The death penalty option should be there and only used where it is clear the murderer is the murderer. So the approach we have at the moment is the right one where we are not enforcing the death penalty where we feel there is doubt. Life imprisonment is the way so that if more evidence emerges, someone can be released if found to be innocent and compensation paid.

    There has to be a balance but personally in favour of the victims and not the criminals such as murderers. The human rights of the victims should always prevail over those of murderers or criminals.

  11. Bongololo says:

    The death penalty must stay. Life sentence means free room and board for as long as a criminal lives. What would be the logic behind giving free housing, meals, and healthcare to a murderer while our children lack resourses for education in schools and medication in hospitals? Why would we as a society want to suffer for losing a loved one and later for supporting the livelihood of the very criminal that caused our bereavement? An eye for an eye basi! Zopusazo ayi!

  12. Atsamunda says:

    Mr Nevin, could you please deliver the same lecture to the Americans (and the Chinese)? I hear they are actively killing murders there. Is this colonialism at work still? We can decide for ourselves, thank you!

  13. pierra says:

    this is indeed a cause that requires action. however, statistics will show that while Malawi has put the death penalty on the pending list, there has been a spike in murder cases including the now almost bustling underground trade in muggings, armed robberies and theft involving actual bodily harm. mob justice killings have risen with no statement from government regarding punishment for the perpetrators, even hauling the same to a court of law. we now face a society where small children are growing up witnessing such mob vendatta being carried out in broad daylight like it was a public act.

    yes, there is a need for galvanised action against the death penalty; but since the budget assistance aid, isnt it asking too much for a broke Malawi government to open another orphanage flooding with these murderers and thieves serving life sentences. and although the Malawi government has not officially admitted it, there is a growing increase in refugees crossing over into Malawi from as far as Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Rwanda, etc. unless the country is actively assisted, the criminality, murders often surrounding the newly created ‘dog eat dog’ environment will continue to soar holding the government back from a desired common outlook on the death penalty.

    this executed poor guy was indeed not a Malawian, however it didn’t take long for some developed nations to tighten passport controls that punished innocent Malawians. there are lessens for all to be learnt and that a way forward almost always involves joint thinking and action!

  14. johnM says:

    Your excellency, he was not a Malawian, he was a Nigerian using a Malawian passport. The main problem is the corrupt immigration department which is issuing passport to every Tom, DIck, and Harry that can pay for it.

    Frankly speaking, even if he is a Malawian, he got what he deserves. Everyone knows that in Asia, drug trafficking is punishable by death thus if you get caught there, you pay the ultimate price. That guy has only himself to blame, no one else.

  15. Mmihavani says:

    Michael Nevin you might be right but some of us take you as a hypocrite. You say the ‘modern’ world has abolished it. You say the EU doesn’t allow a european country to join its block if that country retains death penalty. But how come you are a bedfellow with America, the so-called mother of civilisation, who practises death penalty? Why doesn’t America abolish it? Please note that we take UK and America as close partners and more or less like one. So can you please ask America to abolish it then you can come and preach the same.

  16. zagwazatha says:

    I wish to congratulate my government for already abolishing the capital punishment for now over 20 years. My request goes in line with article above joted. I wish my lovely government puts in written the abolition of this outdated rule. May the constition clearly defines the non existence of this punishment in its essence. May we join the list of the countries which have evovled.

  17. nonsense…the author is high commissioner to malawi indeed.we dont use th@ law any more,so why should we waste our already scarce resources discussing th@ in our parliament.mxiii

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