Zim to free 1 500 prisoners to ease jail population

Zimbabwe’s coalition government is shortly to free more than 1 500 prisoners in a bid to ease the crisis in the country’s crowded jails that have become known as “death camps”, reports said on Wednesday.

The crisis was exposed in April when documentary video footage showed half-naked, skeletal inmates wasting away from hunger and diseases in the country’s 42 jails, as prison authorities ran out of money for rations and drugs.

Quoted on Wednesday by the state-controlled New Ziana news agency, the permanent secretary in the Justice Ministry David Mangota said 1 544 would be granted an amnesty by President Robert Mugabe.

The amnesty applied to all women prisoners, prisoners serving three-year terms and after they had completed a quarter of their sentences, those in open prisons and life inmates who had served 20 or more years. It excluded prisoners jailed for serious crimes, including murder, rape and vehicle hijacking.

The Prisons Department said jails have a capacity of 17 000 inmates, but the current population is about 13 000.

Mangota said the amnesty was “a short-term relief option”.

Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan said on a visit in July that prison conditions were “deplorable and not fit for humans”, and revealed that 1 000 prisoners had died in the first six months of the year. Zimbabwe judge president said sentencing people to jail terms was like “passing a death sentence”.

The crisis partially abated after international media reports on the situation sparked Western aid agencies to come to the rescue with water supplies, food, clothing and medicines.
Local media reports, however, last week quoted prison officials as saying that the rate of deaths had dropped “from three per week to two”.

Zimbabwe’s once prosperous economy crashed last year with inflation hitting an estimated 500-billion percent and the currency plumbing Z$40-trillion to one United States dollar.

Simultaneously, the worst cholera epidemic in Africa for decades broke out, killing about 4 000 people. Mugabe’s reckless economic policies are blamed for the collapse.

Large-scale amnesties are dreaded by ordinary Zimbabweans as they are followed invariably by sudden waves of crime.—Sapa-dpa

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