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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Albino killings and the death sentence: All murder cases are not equal, are they?

Story courtesy of The Guardian newspaper Tanzania (7/11/2009)

By Ani Jozen

Rapid convictions and sentencing of suspects of albino killings in Shinyanga region have put activists for the abolishment of the death penalty on a tight spot, as society generally was gratified that their hanging would send a solid message to other hunters of albinos’ organs.

The death penalty abolition lobby, at pains to change societal attitudes which are overly uninterested in making criminals better people and prefer to get them out of the way, and where relevant by death, are rushing in. This is vital.

The question is vital because if society will be convinced of the futility of hanging those convicted of involvement in killings of skin-disabled people, the most grotesque spate of criminality the country has seen for a while yet, they will have succeeded in discrediting the death penalty itself.

If it is possible to spare albino killings convicts of their carrying out of their sentences, then it is potentially likely that it will be possible to seek formal halting of application of such sentencing. So far it’s a private decision.

No such moratorium (freezing) has been declared on application of death penalties, but the president just hasn’t felt it proper to sign any of the pending sentences.

Activists insist that so long as no such sentences has been applied in the past 16 years, then none will be applied, in which case it is proper to affirm the irrelevance of the sentences in the pursuit either of justice or of alleviating criminality by correcting offenders. Yet it is clear that when issues of death sentence arise, correction is not an option.

The principal argument about the application of the death sentence is that error can’t be ruled out 100 per cent in any conviction, and that unconsidered evidence could arise in future to invalidate the view that the convict was sufficiently responsible for that event.

If the sentence would have been carried out already, the damage is irreparable, so it is better that presumably correctly sentenced people should live than wrongly sentenced people put to death, even if that is rare. No wrongful death is too rare to count.

It isn’t surprising that the sentencing of convicts of albino killings brings out activists against the death penalty, as if they don’t combat this particular spate of convictions – which have a high likelihood of being carried out – they lose the battle altogether.

They don’t intend to create a ‘Kafkaesque’ situation or say one that is close to Animal Farm, the harrowing contradiction of ‘no animal shall sleep on a bed – with sheets.’ They would have to adapt their slogan to ‘abolish the penalty, except for albino killers.’

Yet this is precisely what is refreshing about the debate, as to whether it is of any use at the moment to tell society that even those who hack innocent people for selling of their body parts should be retained in this or that prison.

And especially if the issue is that they will change and become better people, it is hard to see how that becomes convincing to the breadth of society – that they will not be wishing to earn a million shillings for several albino body parts. There is acute need for deterrence as the moment.

The judiciary and the government at a wider level are still smarting from a tormenting somersault on the traders and taxi driver killings by police officers. Letting the albino murderers would send a signal to others that all they risk is eating unbalanced diet in jail, and they retain a chance of being loose again, since ‘where there is life there is hope.’ It would mean that the government passes up a good opportunity for showing to the world it intends to ameliorate its shattered image, from albino killings.

Activists will be confronted with this consideration, since it is far more positive for the government to rectify the country’s image about injustice to albinos than worrying about justice or presumed right to life of their convicted killers.

At times those convicted faced hostile evidence from their own wives as to how they went about seeking out or grabbing the children they hacked to death, a line of evidence no future ‘fact’ can unsettle as to guilt on that account. There are few ‘rare’ facts that are likely here.

One could of course be accused of being simplistic as to whether any case in law is completely closed such that no fact could be unearthed in future to unsettle it.

The response however may not be that far off, as this is also covered by democracy, that elected officials, when acting fairly and receiving clear and distinctive legal advice on a particular case, can examine each case on its own merit. For instance if a conviction includes corroborating evidence by those who are close to the convict, it is deemed safe.

When however one has been convicted entirely on the basis of evidence adduced in court by strangers, and close ones like wife or siblings remained deeply skeptical of that evidence, such person may be placed in life imprisonment but no execution take place.

Just as there can’t be a blanket fear of new and unsettling evidence, so also is it necessary not to rule out such evidence simply because the issue is albino killings. If a proper rule of thumb is placed on that specific detail no miscarriage of law is likely.

That also means it is hard to defend the ‘no death penalty’ maxim in a blanket manner, unless it was presumed that no crime merits suffering death as punishment.

This too is covered in law and would tend to place albino killings at a different level from murder generally, as the latter is quite often tied to conflict, and at times in situations where the assailant was also in danger, and yet the law qualifies such conviction for the death penalty.

That could of course be commuted to life imprisonment, but when a man has cynically, even in the testimony of his wife, gone about harvesting body parts with a panga, the rest of us can be forgiven for not treating him on a par with human beings. He wouldn’t deserve it.

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