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Malawi abolishes death penalty: historic ruling, felt far and wide

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Rebecca Valli

This week, Malawi’s Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty ordering the re-sentencing of at least 37 people known to be under a death sentence.

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 calls the ruling “historic,” and adds that Malawi has now joined the growing ranks of abolitionist countries where high courts have concluded that the death penalty violates the right to life.


Sandra Babcock

Sandra Babcock

Clinical professor of law

Babcock says:

“The impact of this decision will be felt far and wide. The decision further reinforces Africa’s emerging position as a leader in the trend toward abolition of capital punishment.

“The decision is consistent with the African tradition of Ubuntu, or healing justice. The Cornell International Human Rights Clinic published a report in 2018 finding that Malawi’s traditional leaders overwhelmingly supported life imprisonment over death. The report noted that ‘The reasons traditional leaders oppose the death sentence vary. The most common explanation was rooted in the belief that people can change—and that prison is a place for reform. Many noted that rehabilitation is impossible if a prisoner is executed.’

“The Malawi Supreme Court’s decision was based on the constitution’s right to life—a principle that is enshrined not only in Malawi’s Constitution, but many African constitutions and human rights treaties. As a result of the decision, 37 prisoners will have their death sentences reduced to a lesser term. The Supreme Court had already abolished the mandatory death penalty, a decision that led to reduced sentences for more than 160 death row prisoners.”

Muna Ndulo

William Nelson Cromwell Professor of International & Comparative Law

Muna Ndulo, professor of international and comparative law at Cornell, says that the Malawi judiciary is a model for the region.

Ndulo says:

“Malawi’s judiciary exemplifies the best traditions of African jurisprudence. Last year, the judiciary, nullified the undemocratic outcome of the previous presidential election. Now, with the abolition of the death penalty, it has established itself as a leader in upholding the rule of law and human rights. I wholeheartedly applaud this decision.”
 

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