In 2007, the Malawi High Court struck down the mandatory death penalty on the grounds that it violated the accused's constitutional rights to a fair trial and access to justice. As a result of the ruling, every man and woman given a mandatory death sentence was entitled to a new sentencing proceeding where they could present mitigating evidence such as good character, youth, mental illness, or any other factor that diminished their moral blameworthiness. The Malawi Resentencing Project was launched in 2014 by a coalition of partners to address these challenges, support new sentence hearings that adhered to international fair trial standards, and bring justice to the men and women who had languished for years on Malawi's death row.
What has changed for the Malawi Resentencing Project in the last year?
Over the course of the past year, the project has continued its efforts in Malawi, but is now expanding to Tanzania and Kenya, where the project is sharing the lessons learned in Malawi with stakeholders interested in death penalty reform.
In Malawi, the project has assisted the release of six additional prisoners, including two who had been on death row for over 20 years. Additionally, the work of the project has helped pave the way toward the abolition of the death penalty in Malawi. The project continues to represent those who have been sentenced to death and seeks to increase awareness of the issues surrounding the death penalty through engagement with key decision makers in government and civil society stakeholders, as well as by raising awareness through the Malawi media.
In Tanzania, Cornell and Reprieve are working with a coalition of organizations and private law firms working pro bono to implement capital sentencing reforms in accordance with regional human rights standards. Together, they are representing ten prisoners before the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights citing the jurisprudence from Malawi, and are seeking to obtain new sentencing hearings for all 500+ people sentenced to death in the country. They are also developing new means of empowering prisoners to advocate for themselves; for example, they are distributing "infocomics" to educate prisoners about a recent decision by the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights finding that the mandatory death penalty in Tanzania violates the African Charter.
The Malawi Resentencing Project has also served as a model for Kenya, which abolished the mandatory death penalty in 2017, making over 4,000 individuals eligible for a resentencing hearing. Malawian legal aid lawyers and others have shared experiences and expertise with their Kenyan counterparts, who have since incorporated the Malawian model into Kenya's own resentencing process. Work has since begun on resentencing, and those involved in the Malawi Resentencing Project continue to directly support these efforts.
What challenges has the project faced?
In May 2019, Malawi held presidential elections, the results of which were widely contested in the streets and through Malawi's Supreme Court. In February 2020, the election results were annulled by the Supreme Court, and a new election is set to take place later this year.
While this points to a strengthening of democracy in the country, it has also caused a delay in court cases, affecting the fate of nine prisoners in the project. Progress has been further delayed as a result of restrictions on court hearings in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 crisis could have a devastating impact in Malawi – particularly for those languishing in cramped and unhygienic prisons. The situation and spread of the virus is being closely monitored, and coalition partners have been working closely with the diplomatic community to ensure World Health Organization guidelines around vulnerable prisoners are implemented.
Another challenge has been the spike in violence against people with albinism. The government has been severely criticized for its inaction, and some leaders have responded by calling for the death penalty for the perpetrators. Since May 2019, eight new death sentences have been handed down in cases of murder of people with albinism and additional cases are pending that could result in the same outcome. These cases are the first new death sentences handed down in Malawi in over three years. The project has appealed these decisions to the Malawi Supreme Court.
How has winning the 2019 World Justice Challenge made an impact on the project?
The 2019 World Justice Challenge prize money is being used to support the beneficiaries of the Malawi Resentencing project in their appeals, and to support the Legal Aid Bureau to represent other prisoners at risk of death sentences through investigations, utilizing the practices and jurisprudence developed in the project to seek positive outcomes for their clients.
"To be recognized at such a prestigious global event has brought the success of the project to a new audience. It has added credibility to our work and our organizations. The award has provided financial support for work on behalf of several death row prisoners, and has reinvigorated our efforts to share the lessons learned in Malawi with partners in Tanzania and Kenya. […] Our current donors were impressed to learn that the Malawi Resentencing Project was one of the winners of the World Justice Challenge. We now cite the award in funding applications as recognition of the impact of our work in the region, in the hope that we will obtain future grants to allow us to continue doing this important work."
Learn more about the Malawi Resentencing Project in WJP's Program Library.
The winning projects of the World Justice Challenge 2019: Access to Justice Solutions were among 30 finalists chosen from over 250 applications from around the world at the World Justice Forum in The Hague. They each represent innovative efforts to bring justice to individuals and communities that have seen little of it in the past. We are pleased to share their latest work and encourage the rule of law community to participate in our upcoming World Justice Challenge 2021. Stay tuned for a 2021 Challenge announcement coming this fall.