Death row inmate relieves trauma as calls for end to death penalty grow

Last Maengahama, Tungamirai Madzokere spent 10 years in prison – two years in pre-trial detention and eight years after conviction. They were later acquitted by the Supreme Court.

Former Harare City councillor and MDC activist Tungamirai Madzokere still has vivid memories of his time at Chikurubi Maximum prison where he spent eight years after he was wrongly convicted for murder.

Madzokere and Last Maengahama, also an MDC activist, were sentenced to 20 years in jail for allegedly killing a policeman Inspector Petros Mutedza in Harare’s Glen View suburb in 2011.

They spent 10 years in prison – two years in pre-trial detention and eight years after conviction.

They were later acquitted by the Supreme Court.

Madzokere said every time he closed his eyes during his time in prison, he would picture a hangman taking his life for a crime he did not commit.

The former councillor said he would wake up from the nightmare, drenched in cold sweat with his heart pounding.

He said the sounds of prison guards walking up and down the corridors always terrified him, and every time his cell was opened believed they had come to take him to the gallows.

 Visions of the hangman’s noose around his neck had become a regular feature in his imagination.

Before they were sentenced, Madzokere and Maengahama shared a cell with other inmates who were also on death row for four months.

 “It was hard living in fear of the death sentence every day for four years.  Just the thought of being given a death sentence horrified me,” Madzokere narrated his ordeal to The Standard.

“I was not the only one troubled. The fear must have been a lot more for my deathrow mates who had already been sentenced to be hanged until they die.

 “Some of them had taken to fasting; taking only roasted corn (maputi) and water.

 “They shared the fear of our sentencing with us because they believed that once we were sentenced to death, their own death would have arrived because then the hunt for the hangman would be expedited.”

Madzokere said was also haunted by the memory of Edmund Masendeke, one of Zimbabwe’s most infamous murderer who was executed at the same prison and had in fact shared this same prison cell.

Masendeke was most known for being a fugitive from justice along with his partner in crime, Stephen Chidhumo before they were both eventually nabbed and sent to the gallows.

He was arrested in 1997 after having been on the run for two years, committing crimes such as rape, murder, robbery and others.

He was sentenced to death and was eventually executed on May 31, 2002.

Madzokere said the thought of sleeping in Masendele’s prison cell mentally traumatised him.

“The cell that I was given also traumatised me; it was once used by Masendeke who was given a death sentence and was hanged in that same prison,” Madzokere said.

“Each time I went to see my visitors I had to walk past the gallows,” he said.

“I would see the red stains of blood on the wood, and it would make me feel sick. I began to write so that I could occupy myself. I wrote five books.”

According to reports, Zimbabwe is among 87 countries in the world that have not abolished the death penalty.

Although Zimbabwe's last execution was in 2005, it has 62 inmates on death row.

Two of them have however been granted presidential clemency and had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

 Section 48 of the Zimbabwe constitution says that the death penalty may be imposed only for murder committed in aggravating circumstances and only on men aged between 21 and 70 years – not on women.

Val Ingham Thorpe, the director of local legal thinktank Veritas, proposed a re-trial of all inmates sentenced to death in a model law as part of its latest push for the abolishment of the death sentence in Zimbabwe.

“The death penalty is applied disproportionately to marginalised and disadvantaged groups,” Thorpe said.

“The risk of executing an innocent person is too high to justify the continued use of the death penalty.”

Thorpe said the death penalty is a violation of human rights and does not reduce crime rates.

“The cost of death penalty trials and appeals is significantly higher than that of life imprisonment, leading to unjust allocation of resources.

“The use of the death penalty perpetuates a culture of violence and vengeance rather than rehabilitation and reintegration.”

Veritas once petitioned Parliament requesting the legislature to pass a resolution on abolishing the death penalty.

They said the death penalty did not provide closure for victims' families and could prolong their pain and trauma.

Amnesty International representative Roselina Muzerengi said the law needed to be amended to remove the death penalty.

 “Amending subservient legislation relevant to the application of the death penalty is the quickest route but abolition in the constitution must be the ultimate objective of stakeholders working on abolition,” Muzerengi said.

While prisoners on death row have to endure psychological trauma, they also have to deal with harsh prison conditions.

In its recent report on Human Rights Practices in Zimbabwe, the United States said prisoners in Zimbabwe are facing appalling conditions behind bars while some of them were either malnourished or seriously ill.

The report indicated that conditions in prisons, jails, and detention centers were harsh, and overcrowded.

“Remand (pre-trial) prisons were overcrowded,” the report reads.

“Detainees who were denied bail were often held in severely overcrowded remand cells for years while awaiting trial.”

The report also indicated that juveniles were vulnerable to abuse by prison officials and other prisoners.

Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service spokesperson Superintendent Meya Khanyezi did not respond to questions sent to her on prison conditions.

A public survey by the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI), a non-profit research organisation revealed that although 56.2 percent of Zimbabwe's population favour the death sentence, 80% would accept abolition if the government decided on it.

Madzokere condemned the death penalty saying it was inhumane.

“I am grateful that I will not have to suffer this inhuman punishment, but I also grieve for many other people on death row,” he said.

“There are some people that are still there who are experiencing the trauma. They are still waiting for the hangman.”

After his release from prison, he found his wife had deserted him.

However, he said that was the least of his worries, and has since remarried.

“So many innocent people have been wrongly convicted. I believe that the death penalty should be removed and replace with life in prison,” he said.

Madzokere went through counselling after his release from prison in 2021.

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