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Zimbabwe: A strategic presidential pardon?

By Damien Glez

Posted on May 23, 2023 09:33

 © By Damien Glez
By Damien Glez

With less than three months left to the general elections, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has decided to grant clemency to nearly one-fifth of prisoners.

Approximately 4,200 inmates out of the 22,000 in Zimbabwe’s prisons, accounting for 19% of the national prison population, are expected to be released following the president’s decision on 18 May. Various explanations have been put forward regarding this dramatic move.

To an observer unfamiliar with Zimbabwean politics, the reason behind this sweeping measure could be reduced to statistics. Like many countries – both African and non-African – Zimbabwe suffers from the inextricable problem of prison overcrowding: roughly 50 prisons have a total capacity of 17,000, resulting in an excess of 29% in inmate population.

‘Nothing to do with alleviating congestion’

According to the authorities, the collective pardon granted by Mnangagwa has nothing to do with alleviating prison congestion. Meya Khanyezi, spokesperson for the prison services, however asserts that it should be seen as “a noble gesture from the President.”

For the political opposition, the lofty rhetoric thinly veils political doublespeak. Its representatives note that the presidential, legislative, and senatorial elections are scheduled for August, and Mnangagwa is running for re-election. The same is true for many members of his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).

In this Southern African country, which has a history marked by various forms of violence, the octogenarian successor of Robert Mugabe promised in April to hold “free, fair, and credible elections”. The released prisoners, primarily men, will now have the opportunity to vote and potentially influence their families’ voting decisions.

Concern over granting amnesty

While granting amnesty to several thousand prisoners may be seen as an act of humanity, the initiative is not without concern for populations who are wary of the early and collective release of individuals convicted of crimes and offences.

To reach potential voters without alienating others, the state specifies that the presidential pardon only applies to inmates who have served three-quarters of their sentence. Similarly, those convicted of theft, treason, and offences against security are excluded. In May 2016, 2,000 prisoners – mostly minor offenders and women – were granted amnesty.

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