Last Wednesday, Malawi’s Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional. That means the death penalty has been abolished entirely in the country. The Court also ruled that all those sentenced to the mandatory death penalty who been barred from resentencing must have a new sentencing hearing immediately. A life sentence is now the most severe sentence that can be given.
This incredible ruling is the culmination of decades of work by human rights defenders who have been fighting for the abolition of the death penalty. It represents a return to key Malawian values and traditions rooted in reconciliation, rehabilitation and the possibility of reform. The client who brought the case, Charles Khoviwa, is a perfect demonstration of these values. Over decades in prison, Charles has taken steps to rehabilitate himself and has for years been a leader and an example of reform to his fellow inmates.
The landmark ruling was bolstered over the weekend when Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera publicly announced his support for the historic judgement, in a statement celebrating the independence of the judiciary. The President can be proud that this is another significant achievement by a country that has consistently demonstrated leadership in the region on key human rights issues.
This win is the direct result of years of work on the Malawi Resentencing Project by a coalition of stakeholders including the Malawi Human Rights Commission; the Legal Aid Bureau; the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance; the Paralegal Advisory Services Institute; and the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. With these partners and others, Reprieve investigators, lawyers, campaigners and supporters have laid the foundation needed to achieve last week’s ruling.
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The Malawi Resentencing Project was launched in 2014 following a 2007 decision by the Malawi High Court to abolish the mandatory death penalty, declaring that it was incompatible with the rights guaranteed in the Constitution – the rights to life, to fair trial, access to justice, and protection from inhumane treatment or punishment.
Together with our partners and Fellows, we conducted mitigation investigations, organised and attended hearings, collected records and drafted pleadings, and provided trainings to the lawyers, paralegals and clinicians involved in the project on key issues related to mitigation. We also undertook extensive advocacy in Malawi, engaging with politicians, international bodies, and the public through our extensive networks developed over years of working closely with key partners on this issue.
We secured and supported new hearings that adhered to international fair trial standards for 156 eligible people. To date over 145 individuals formerly sentenced to the mandatory death penalty have had their death sentences overturned and have been released. The Malawi Resentencing Project was hugely successful and was one of the five winners of the World Justice Project’s ‘World Justice Challenge’ in 2019 for its impact in advancing access to justice and the rule of law.
More than that, it created critical momentum for conversations about abolition to take place within the Malawian government, the judiciary, and the public that led to the ruling published by Malawi’s Supreme Court last week. The ruling could also have huge, positive repercussions across the region; especially in Kenya where a similar resentencing project is underway for the thousands of people on Kenya’s death row.
You can listen to one of our brilliant fellows, Alexious Kamangila, speak about the judgement and the impact it could have on the BBC’s Focus on Africa show. He notes: “Malawi’s pioneering work has informed neighbouring countries undertaking progressive criminal justice reform; [this] decision is a milestone in Africa’s turn away from the death penalty.”
The Malawi Human Rights Commission is demonstrating its significant leadership in calling for implementation of the judgment. The Reprieve team will now focus on supporting partners, such as the MHRC and Legal Aid, to ensure that the final resentencing hearings take place, that the last men and women are taken off Malawi’s death row, and that last week’s ruling is enacted into law.
Thank you for being a part of this moment in history.
Editor’s Note: Four months after the initial judgement issued in April 2021, a ‘perfected’ judgement was issued rolling back the groundbreaking original judgement. As of August 2021, the death penalty is no longer unconstitutional in Malawi. Read more about this news here.