This week, the Malawi Supreme Court banned the death penalty by amending the sentence and ordering the resentencing of 37 people who had been sentenced to death.
Sandra Babcock, director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and a partner in the Malawi Resentencing Project, has worked on capital cases in Malawi since 2007. She described the decision as « historic » and added that Malawi has now joined the growing ranks of abolitionist countries where high courts have found that the death penalty violates the right to life. She stated that « The impact of this decision will be felt far and wide. This decision further strengthens Africa’s emerging position as a leader in the trend towards abolition of capital punishment.
« The decision is in line with the African tradition of Ubuntu, or healing justice. The Cornell International Human Rights Clinic published a report in 2018 finding that traditional leaders in Malawi overwhelmingly supported life imprisonment over death. The report notes that « The reasons why traditional leaders oppose the death penalty vary. The most common explanation was rooted in the belief that people can change – and that prison is a place of reform. Many noted that rehabilitation is impossible if a prisoner is executed.
« The decision of the Malawi Supreme Court was based on the Constitution’s right to life – a principle that is enshrined not only in the Malawi Constitution, but in many African constitutions and human rights treaties. As a result of this decision, 37 prisoners will have their death sentences reduced to a lesser sentence. The Supreme Court had already abolished the mandatory death penalty, a decision that led to a reduction in the sentences of over 160 death row inmates.
Muna Ndulo, professor of international and comparative law at Cornell, says Malawi’s judicial system is a model for the region. Ndulo said that « Malawi’s judicial system exemplifies the best traditions of African jurisprudence. Last year, the judiciary overturned the undemocratic outcome of the previous presidential election. Now, with the abolition of the death penalty, it has established itself as a leader in the rule of law and human rights. I wholeheartedly applaud this decision.