The Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe has ruled that life sentences without the possibility of parole are cruel and inhuman punishment and a violation of human dignity (Obediah Makoni v Commissioner of Prisons & Anr, CCZ 8/16).
Mr Makoni has spent more than 20 years in prison after being sentenced to life at the age of 19. He challenged the blanket exclusion of life prisoners from the parole regime, because they remove any hope of eventual release, with no individual assessment of the offender’s circumstances, his ongoing danger to the public or his capacity for reform. He argued that the theoretical availability of executive clemency, which was central to the Government's submissions, is in practice arbitrary, opaque, rarely exercised, and outside the scope of judicial supervision.
In upholding Mr Makoni’s challenge the Court recognised the importance of Zimbabwe’s obligations in international law and relevant foreign case law as a guide to interpreting the Constitution. It held that periodic reviews of detention and rehabilitation programmes with a view to re-integration into society must be extended to prisoners serving life sentences, noting that “the unavoidable cruelty of incarceration without the correlative beneficence of rehabilitation would unnecessarily aggravate and dehumanise the delivery of corrective justice. In short, every prisoner should be able to perceive and believe in the possibility of his eventual liberation after a period of incarceration befitting his crime and his capacity for reformation”.
The Court ordered a full report on Mr Makoni by the Parole Board to determine whether he is suitable for release. It also held that its conclusions were to be applied to all prisoners serving life imprisonment in Zimbabwe.
Mr Makoni was represented by Tendai Biti of the Zimbabwe Bar on the instructions of Veritas, a Zimbabwe NGO. Mr Biti was assisted by Joe Middleton of Doughty Street Chambers and Amanda Clift-Matthews, who were both instructed on a pro bono basis by the Death Penalty Project. Further details can be found here and the judgment can be found here.