/ 11 December 2023

The death penalty is alive and well in Tanzania

Execution Knot Suicide Death Rope Hangman Noose
In defiance of a judgment by the African court on human and peoples’ rights,capital punishment remains — even if death sentences are never executed

Nationalism appears to be trumping human rights standards in Tanzania. In particular in its response to calls by a top African court to revise its law on the death penalty.

In two rulings issued on Tuesday, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights found that the Tanzanian state violates the right to life by sentencing people to death without giving judges any discretion in the matter. It also ruled that sentencing people to die by hanging is cruel, inhumane and violates the right to dignity.

The court has issued similar rulings in three other cases since 2019.

Under a colonial-era section of Tanzania’s penal code, the death penalty is mandatory for murder. But several convicts sentenced to death petitioned the court, asking it to defend their right to life. 

They won the legal battle, with the court advising the Tanzanian state to revise the law.

After the Tuesday rulings, The Continent spoke to Tanzania’s deputy solicitor-general, the deputy secretary of its Law Reform Commission and a legislator in its parliament. All three expressed outrage and vowed to fight for a reversal of the rulings.

Sarah Mwaipopo, the deputy solicitor-general, said Tanzania maintains that law because of “the necessity of the death penalty as a deterrent for heinous crimes”.

Joseph Musukuma, an MP, echoed this: “The death penalty scares people from killing each other and this provision in the penal code ensures that perpetrators are severely punished for taking another person’s life.” 

But such rhetoric is contradicted by practice. The Tanzanian state has not executed any convicts in nearly 30 years. Instead, once sentenced to death, prisoners remain in limbo until they die of other causes. More than 490 Tanzanians now live in that situation.

The officials’ hardline positions appear motivated more by nationalism than criminal justice. “This is an infringement on our sovereignty. The court is overreaching by dictating changes in our legal system. We shall appeal to protect our legal autonomy,” Mwaipopo said.

Zainab Chanzi, deputy secretary of the Law Reform Commission, expressed similar sentiments. “The court’s interference in our legislative processes is unwarranted,” she said, arguing that it raised questions about respect for Tanzania’s sovereignty.

The official position is frustrating to the country’s human rights activists, who hoped that the African court’s rulings would be a wake-up call for the country.

“The death penalty has no place in a civilised society. It should be abolished,” said Anna Henga, who heads the Legal and Human Rights Centre. 

Onesmo Olengurumwa, of Tanzania’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition, also urged Tanzanian authorities to reconsider their stance on the death penalty and promptly

align the country’s laws with international human rights norms.

Tanzania is not unique in Africa. Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Cameroon, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are all death penalty abolitionists in practice but have refused to revise their law books.

In Uganda, despite a two-decade moratorium on executions, the country recently included the death penalty in its draconian anti-homosexuality law. 
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here / at thecontinent.org