Daniel Nemukuyu Senior Court Reporter
A Government lawyer yesterday told the court that prisons in Zimbabwe are in a bad state and that condemned inmates who have spent years awaiting execution are languishing under difficult and undesirable conditions.
Mrs Olivia Zvedi, a chief law officer in the Attorney-General’s Office, conceded that the conditions in prison were bad, but attributed the problem to economic challenges facing the country.
She was responding to a constitutional application by some 14 death row inmates who are challenging capital punishment.
The 14 prisoners who have been on death row for periods ranging between three and 18 years, argued that their rights to life and human dignity were being violated by the continued detention without execution.
It is the 14’s argument that they were being subjected to mental torture while living under inhuman and degrading conditions, where the pages of the Holy Bible may at times be turned into toilet paper.
They now want the Constitutional Court to declare the delay in their execution to be unconstitutional and to remit the cases back to the High Court for downward review of the sentences.
Mrs Zvedi told the court that improvements can only be expected if the economy im- proves.
“While it is correct that the conditions in prison are not at their best, they are a result of the current economic hardships that the country is facing,” she said.
“Unless and until the economy improves, nothing much can be done to improve prison conditions.”
Asked to respond to complaints by prisoners that they were feeding on sadza with water that was coloured with some gravy, Mrs Zvedi said that too was a result of the economic challenges.
Mrs Zvedi also made a concession that the death row prisoners were suffering, but indicated that they deserved it considering the heinous offence they commit- ted.
“While it is conceded that the applicants may have endured beyond the expected levels of suffering, our position is that the period in question does not render the sentence that they have endured to be inhuman and degrading conditions considering the crimes they committed,” she said.
“These people took away other people’s lives and the court should be guided by the heinous nature of the offence that the applicants were convicted of.”
The prisoners’ lawyer, Mr Tendai Biti of Biti Law Chambers, argued that economic challenges were not an excuse for breaching constitutional rights.
“That is an unacceptable excuse,” he said.
Mr Biti said the death row prisoners were suffering like any other prisoners, but their situation was worsened by the trauma of the pending death.
“Death row inmates endure an extra suffering because capital punishment is another prison in a prison,” said Mr Biti.
He told the court that the prisoners were confined in solitary cells, in violation of their rights.
Mr Biti said the 14 prisoners indicated that there was no water supply at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and they were using the bucket system to relieve themselves.
He said there was a shortage of blankets and the ablution facilities were poor.
Mr Biti said the prisoners were feeding on sadza, which was served with water coloured with some gravy disguised as soup.
Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba, sitting with eight other judges, yesterday heard the arguments and reserved judgment.