“There is no reform in death” – traditional leaders’ views on the death penalty in Malawi 

A collaboration with Cornell Law School Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide and the Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (PASI), Malawi. Read the report here

  • 94% of traditional leaders surveyed united in rejecting the death penalty
  • 125 prisoners released after resentencing hearings
  • Strong belief that individuals can change and give back to communities
  • Concerns about execution of the innocent
  • Reformed prisoners play an important role in deterring future crime

Read the report from: Malawian Traditional Leaders’ Perspectives on Capital Punishment: A targeted survey of traditional leaders a ected by the Malawi Capital Resentencing Project

In 2007, Malawi’s Supreme Court struck down the mandatory death penalty for its incompatibility with rights guaranteed by the Constitution – the rights to fair trial, access to justice, and protection from inhuman treatment or punishment. After confirming this decision, the High Court struck down all Malawi’s death sentences and began re-sentencing prisoners through the Malawi Capital Resentencing Project, of which Reprieve is a part. 

As a result, 125 prisoners have been released after serving sentences ranging from 15 to 35 years, and Malawi is leading the world in sentencing jurisprudence and effective rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. In addition, its justice system has achieved landmark results for those wrongly sentenced to death as children, people with mental health issues and intellectual disability, and those wrongly convicted. 

The Malawi Capital Resentencing Project has surveyed Group and Village Headman across Malawi to establish their views on the death penalty and the justice system. The values of Malawi’s Constitution strongly support reform, and it is now clear that abolition has the backing of an important segment of the country’s traditional leaders.

Here’s what the research revealed:

1. Traditional leaders overwhelmingly support abolition of the death penalty in Malawi

An overwhelming majority – 94% of those surveyed – believe that the State should not use the death penalty to punish those convicted of murder.

Instead, traditional leaders believe that a more appropriate sentence is either a term of years, life imprisonment with opportunity for early release or (least frequently) life imprisonment with no opportunity for release. Only 6% of traditional leaders support the retention of the death penalty.

2. Abolition will strengthen local communities

A key reason many traditional leaders favoured abolition of the death penalty was the impact on their own communities. They stressed the importance of prisoners being able to return to their communities to serve, give back a vital source of labour and strengthen their communities through reintegration.

Released prisoner, convicted as a child, meeting his brother for the first time

As many of the leaders stated, prisoners themselves can serve as powerful examples of rehabilitation and rebuilding trust. A majority of traditional leaders commented on how released prisoners have served as role models in their communities, making a significant contribution to the social fabric of the village.

An overwhelming majority of leaders expressed their keenness to welcome back released prisoners – as were, so the leaders stated, the villagers themselves. As one leader commented of a released prisoner, “His coming is like he [has] been released from the grave”.

3. Leaders want an end to harm and trauma inflicted by the death penalty

Another key reason leaders’ gave for favouring abolition is the collective harm that communities experienced when the death penalty is imposed. They described the sentence as sending shockwaves among local communities, taking a severe toll on families and their children. As one leader stated, the death sentence “robs families of their members” who could have supported them at home. Many others attested to the severe harm children suffer losing a parent to the death penalty.

4. A belief in personal transformation

One powerful message from traditional leaders was the belief that people can change. Very common among leaders’ opposition to the death penalty was their belief in personal transformation.

Many noted that a society based on rehabilitation and reintegration is made impossible by the death penalty. As traditional leaders noted, “The purpose of prison is reform”, and, “There is no reform in death.”

Those surveyed recognised that prisoners can be helped to turn their lives around – and they have seen the evidence right first hand in own communities.

5. Concerns about execution of the innocent

Many leaders also expressed serious concerns that innocent people could be wrongly executed. They raised the risk of innocent people being coerced into confessions, condemned by false testimony, or harmed by a poor defense. Traditional leaders surveyed overwhelmingly believe that there are better ways of punishing those truly guilty of crimes and repairing communities.

As one stated, ““[t]here are too many flaws in the criminal justice system”. Several others raised concerns that those sentenced to death are often unable “to conduct an effective defense.” The surveys revealed real frustrations among villagers in dealing with the justice system, with one leader commenting on a family’s efforts to support a prisoner, “They tried to find money to bail him out but failed. They tried get a lawyer but failed”. Recognising that prisoners face serious problems in accessing quality legal representation in an overburdened justice system, traditional leaders did not want to see the innocent killed in their names.

6. Protecting and promoting human rights

Traditional leaders further gave voice to the need for justice and human rights – no matter whom the individual. Many of those surveyed placed strong emphasis on the rights of prisoners – which the imposition of the death penalty violates.

Some based their views on Malawi’s human rights institutions and its democratic culture, or within its Constitution – things they found strongly inconsistent with the death penalty. Several based their opposition in the belief in its cruelty and inhumanity – inflicted on individuals who may deserve a second chance.