Rights groups in Zimbabwe are up in arms after President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government ignored details of its own clemency order and paroled thousands of prisoners, including dangerous convicted rapists.
Lawyers and rights groups say those convicted of rape should not have been released as their offenses are classified as "specified," which do not qualify for presidential pardons, according to a government clemency order issued before the pardons.
Last week, government officials released 4,270 inmates who were granted amnesty by Mnangagwa as part of his effort to decongest the country’s 47 prisons.
Women's and children’s advocacy groups in particular were incensed by a local television interview with four recently released inmates who confirmed they had been serving sentences for rape or statutory rape.
In an interview, Pamellah Musimwa of Justice for Children said those convicted of rape or statutory rape should not be eligible for pardons and should be required to serve their full sentences.
“It is very concerning that convicts of rape and other sexual offenses were also released through the amnesty,” she told VOA. “These offenses involve trauma and shock on the survivors … who … at least felt safe after the accused have been convicted and imprisoned.
“Their wounds, which were probably healing because of the sentence, are now being reopened,” she added. “They now have to interface with unrepentant perpetrators. Besides affecting the survivor, the convicts’ release seems to trivialize the offenses.”
The released rapists, she said, were bragging about their releases during the interview.
“As a nation, have we done good? ... Are we saying the commission of rape is now trivial, such that the perpetrators could be released anyhow without fully serving their sentences?” Musimwa said, adding that she feared the released offenders might strike again. “I feel the release of these people is a threat to the welfare of child survivors, their relatives and even to the welfare of those that have not been abused.”
A representative of Mnangagwa directed VOA’s request for commentary to the Ministry of Justice.
In a brief phone call with VOA, Justice Secretary Virginia Mabiza said that rapists were not supposed to have been released on parole - and then the phone call abruptly cut out. Several attempts to reach Mabiza a second time were unsuccessful.
Another child rights group, Equality Now, said Zimbabwe's premature release of convicted of sexual offenders compromised public safety, denied survivors the closure they deserved and eroded faith in the criminal justice system.
“By releasing prisoners convicted of sexual offenses, Zimbabwe has relegated the rights of women and girls and thus exposes them to further violation,” said Equality Now’s Jean-Paul Murunga. “We therefore call [for] immediate reversal of the decision. Further, we call [for] effective implementation of the laws against sexual violence, including proper implementation of a sexual offenders register, to ensure such [a] release is not repeated in future.”
Prematurely freeing convicted rapists and perpetrators of gender-based violence sends a “chilling message that these violations are not taken seriously,” he said.
“Granting early release disregards the severity of the crimes and undermines the rule of law and the trust placed in the legal system by victims and the public alike,” said Murunga, a Kenyan national.
Musimwa of Justice for Children said the clemency order on which the inmates were released does not allow rapists to be on parole.
Zimbabwe’s former president, the late Robert Mugabe, pardoned thousands of inmates to make room in the country's overcrowded, cash- and resource-strapped prisons in 2016, according to the state-run Herald.
The decision followed a March 2015 prison uprising over food shortages that turned violent as some prisoners attempted to break out of jail, said then-Vice President Mnangagwa. The protests resulted in the deaths of five inmates who were shot by police.
As president, Mnangagwa pardoned 3,000 to ease overcrowding in 2018. Neither the 2016 nor 2018 pardons extended to those convicted of murder, treason, rape and armed robbery.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.