On 21 April Amnesty International published its annual global report on the use of the death penalty. The report reveals that the global use of the death penalty decreased in 2020.
The number of known executions fell by 26% from 657 in 2019 to 483 in 2020, the lowest figure that Amnesty International has recorded in the last decade. Also, last year was the third consecutive year that Amnesty International recorded the lowest execution figure in a 10-year period. On the other hand, new death sentences known to have been imposed globally decreased significantly by 36%, from 2,307 in 2019 to 1,477 in 2020.
The situation last year in sub-Saharan Africa was one of relative progress with the use of the death penalty decreasing and positive developments recorded in the region. Compared with the previous year, in 2020 recorded executions in the region went down by 36%, from 25 to 16; and recorded death sentences fell by 6%, from 325 to 305. Three countries in the region – Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan – carried out executions, one less than the previous year. These three countries constitute a minority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that consistently implement death sentences.
Sudan, which historically executed people, did not record any executions in 2020. The country made some remarkable progress against the death penalty. In July, the authorities amended the Criminal Law to prohibit the use of the death penalty for children. That ensured the inconsistency that had existed between the Child Act and the Criminal Law was resolved; and kept Sudan’s laws in line with its legal obligations under international human rights law which strictly prohibits the use of the death penalty for people who were below the age of 18 at the time of the crime. In the same month, Sudan abolished the use of the death penalty for apostasy, which should never have been punishable with death since international law bans the use of the death penalty for crimes that do not involve intentional killing.
Chad effectively abolished the death penalty in May for all crimes when late President Idriss Déby Itno signed into law a revised anti-terrorism bill, which removed the death penalty for terrorism-related offences. Chad had previously removed the death penalty from a new Penal Code promulgated in 2017. With the abolition, Chad became the 21st country in sub-Saharan Africa to abolish the death penalty for all crimes and joined Guinea, Benin, Madagascar and the Republic of Congo as abolitionist countries of the region in the last decade.
In Gambia, the official moratorium on executions that President Adama Barrow established in 2018 remained in place. Although the death penalty is yet to be abolished in the country and death sentences continue to be imposed by the courts, the moratorium on executions and Gambia’s legal commitment under the international treaty that prohibits the carrying out of executions constitute important steps in the right direction.
As Covid-19 raged through 2020 and the world focused on finding ways to protect lives from the disease, 18 countries in the world showed utter disregard to the right to life by executing people. However, some improvement was evident in sub-Saharan Africa as recorded commutation of death sentences increased by 87%. At least 309 commutations were granted during the year across the region; a huge increase compared to 2019 when at least 165 commutations were granted. The increase in commutation of death sentences was triggered by the mass commutations in Tanzania when late President John Magufuli commuted the death sentence of 256 prisoners in December. In all, 12 countries – Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – were known to have granted commutations or pardons of death sentences in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020.
In Kenya, the abolition of the mandatory death penalty by the Supreme Court in 2017 continued to lead to the commutation of death sentences by the courts after resentencing hearings. In one example, 23 prisoners, who had petitioned the High Court to review their death sentences, following the Supreme Court judgement, had their death sentences commuted to various prison terms. One of the petitioners, whose death sentence was commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment, was released having already been in prison for 20 years.
Despite the progress recorded against the death penalty, more work needs to be done by the abolitionist movement in sub-Saharan Africa to get rid of the death penalty, which still remains in place in a majority of the countries in the region. The exonerations of prisoners under the sentence of death, recorded by Amnesty International, in both Cameroon (3) and Zambia (6) in 2020 are stark reminders of the inherent risk of using the death penalty. The death penalty is a cruel punishment which has no place in our world. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa must protect the right to life and completely abolish the death penalty in all circumstances.
Oluwatosin Popoola, Legal Adviser at Amnesty International, International Secretariat, London.