PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa has pardoned 5 000 prisoners serving for non-violent crimes as part of measures to decongest the country’s prisons whose population had ballooned to over 20 000.
Among those who will be released through the Presidential amnesty are those who were jailed for life but have since served at least 25 years.
The country’s prison population currently stands at 22 000 against an official holding capacity of 17 000.
President Mnangagwa yesterday announced the amnesty in a Government Gazette (General Notice 673 of 2020) under Clemency Order 1 of 2020.
The amnesty comes barely a week after the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) had appealed to Government to pardon some inmates to decongest facilities and reduce the spread of Covid-19 in case of an outbreak.
In an interview yesterday, secretary for Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mrs Virginia Mabiza said the President exercised his constitutional powers to release some prisoners in terms of section 112(1)(a) and (d) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
“We are expecting about 5 000 prisoners to be released any time from now following a Presidential Clemency Order. Prisons is now working on the necessary paperwork among other modalities to ensure the release of the prisoners on amnesty,” she said.
Mrs Mabiza said the amnesty was a routine exercise carried out by Government to decongest and alleviate challenges faced by the ZPCS.
She said although it is not linked to coronavirus, it came at the right time when there is need to implement the principle of social distancing, which is aimed at combating the spread of the global pandemic.
“The release of prisoners is not related to Covid-19. It is actually one of Government efforts towards decongesting our prisons, but it just came at a time when the world is battling to contain Covid-19,” she said.
Mrs Mabiza said communicable diseases like Covid-19 can spread easily in confined places and de-congesting prisons is therefore critical.
“In fact, it is good now that we have such a programme when we are also trying to implement social distancing, which can also be extended to prisons as much as we can stretch while at the same time trying to balance the interests of justice,” she said.
According to the clemency order, President Mnangagwa also commuted to life imprisonment sentences of inmates who were on death row for at least 10 years or more.
However, murder, treason, rape, armed robbery, car-jacking, sexual offences or violence driven offences do not qualify for Presidential pardon.
Other prisoners also excluded from the amnesty include habitual criminals previously released on amnesty and those serving a sentence imposed by a court martial or have a record of escaping from lawful custody. The amnesty has emptied the country’s juvenile and female prisoners, regardless of the offence committed, save for those convicted of murder, treason, any se_xual offence, carjacking, robbery, stock theft, public violence, any conspiracy, incitement or attempt to commit any of those offences.
“Full remission of the remaining period of imprisonment is hereby granted to all female prisoners, save for those convicted of specified offences. The inmate should have served at least half of her sentence,” read the order.
“Full remission of the remaining period of imprisonment is hereby granted to all juvenile prisoners under the age of eighteen (18), save for those convicted of specified offences. The prisoners should have served at least one third of his or her sentence.”
All prisoners serving a term of imprisonment at the Open Prison regardless of offences committed and those aged 70 years and above have also been pardoned, including those who have been bed ridden for a prolonged period without recovery upon certification by a correctional medical officer or a Government medical officer.
President Mnangagwa has also freed all prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment and had served 25 years.
Prisoners serving an effective period of imprisonment of more than 36 months who have served a third of their remaining sentence were also granted an additional one-quarter remission of the remaining effective period of imprisonment.
The President, under the Constitution, has powers to substitute lesser sentences than those imposed by the courts. It is this power that has been used in the past, using a formula to ensure equal treatment.
The prisoners still have criminal records, which will count against them if they repeat the offence, and their convictions stand.
In 2018, President Mnangagwa cut the sentences of 3 000 prisoners across the country in a bid to de-congest prisons and improve the living conditions of those who remain.