By William Omondi & Sarah Nyakio
The World will be observing this year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10. The marking of this date was declared by the European Council on September 26, 2007. Humanity’s concern on this day entails raising awareness on the obligation to abolish Death Penalty from global justice systems. Also known as Capital Punishment, Death Penalty is the state’s approval of killing of a person or a group of people as a sentence for a real or purported crime committed by an individual or a group of people.
Retrospect shows that the death penalty has been an age-old existential threat to humanity across civilizations. Documented narratives of a death sentence are evident from the days of the Pax Romana where people were condemned to be crucified, beheaded or trampled and devoured by beasts for professing their faith or committing a crime. Classic case examples of the above scenarios include the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the middle of two men who had been found guilty of theft. Other cases include the martyrdom of St. Peter, a disciple of Jesus with his head facing downwards; the beheading of St. Paul for proclaiming Christianity; the stoning of Apostle Steven for defending his Christian faith as well. Women were not spared the wrath either. Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were repeatedly gored by a wild bull and thereafter their throats were split open by a soldier. Perpetua was separated from her baby while Felicity was pregnant at the time of their executions. The case of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were replicated in the Kingdom of Kongo in 1706. A young lady by the name of Kimpa Vita (Dona Beatriz) was separated from her baby and burnt alive with the support of Catholic Missionaries. Her crime was propagating the spiritual and political liberation of the Kongo from the Portuguese.
The death penalty is physically and psychologically torturous, inhuman, cruel and degrading as a punishment for any crime. In the case of Jesus Christ and the two thieves, for example, all their body organs were functional from the time they were beaten up and taunted through the streets and finally crucified at Golgotha. This means that they endured pain and had to obey other body functions from the crosses. Cases of those who were beheaded, trampled upon or torn apart by beasts or burnt alive were not different either. Contemporary methods of effecting the Death Penalty that include stoning, electrocution, lethal injection, hanging, blowing by gun, back-breaking, and asphyxia among others are dehumanizing as well. A death row suspect suffers stigma, trauma and humiliation from the beginning of the judicial process to their execution. Global Campaigns Against Death Penalty should therefore be amplified by state and non-state actors.
History shows that the campaigns geared towards abolishing the death penalty were notable in 724 A.D when Emperor Shomu of Japan banned the death penalty before the empire returned to it after a few years. China had a similar experience when Emperor Xuanzong of Tang replaced the death penalty with exile and scourging but the decree lasted for only 12 years. In 1786, the Duke of Harbsburg in modern-day Germany banned the death penalty; Rome did so in 1849; Japan, Singapore and Taiwan in 1846; and Sierra Leone in 2021. In the United States, torture is still used by the US Army and 24 out of the 50 states.
As Carolyn Hoyle and Parvais Jabar of the Death Penalty Project assert, Kenya is a de facto abolitionist. The country has not used Death Penalty to execute anyone for the last 35 years. However, Kenyan courts continue to sentence people to death for murder, robbery with violence and attempted robbery with violence. Statistics show that there are about 600 Kenyans on death row. In 2018, the Kenya Law Commission recommended the abolition of the death penalty. The government insisted that the proposal did not reflect the views of the populace. A study that was commissioned by the Death Penalty Project and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights in 2021 found that 90% of the 1,672 members of the public and 42 opinion leaders from across the country supported the abolition of the death penalty.
The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 3 of the document articulates the right to life as article 5 renounces torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment of human beings.
In Kenya, the courts do still hand down death sentences. By the end of 2021, there were 601 people on death row and 14 death sentences had been passed that year.
The Government of Kenya should, in the meantime through a Presidential Declaration or otherwise, confirm the moratorium on all current death sentences and commute all sentences of death row convicts to life imprisonment.