The courts of Zambia continue to pass and confirm the death penalty in alarming numbers, following a 2016 constitutional review in which the majority of voters expressed support for the existing laws on hanging. Presidents have periodically commuted large batches of death row prisoners. The most recent mass commuting of death penalty sentences occurred earlier this year, when President Edgar Lungu moved 225 men and 21 women off death row, ostensibly to reduce ‘overcrowding’ and create better conditions to protect against Covid-19.
Never will I forget the first time I sat in court, watching and listening as a judge passed the death sentence on a convicted person. In the years after that, before South Africa’s new apex court found the death penalty unconstitutional, I witnessed that scene on a number of other occasions, but each time it was a shock, a jolt to the soul: how could it be that this person, whom everyone in court had somehow got to know through the hours or days of the trial, who was alive and well, would be put to death by hanging on the orders of this judge?