Gabon quietly joins the abolitionist camp
Unexpected news came from West Africa at the end of February when Gabon announced the legal abolition of the death penalty in the country.
The action, apparently the culmination of a sustained effort of several years from World Coalition member organisations Community of Sant’Egidio and Hands Off Cain in cooperation with President Ali Bongo Ondimba and the Gabonese government, was accomplished via parliamentary vote on February 15, 2010.
The act made Gabon the 96th country in the world and the 16th country in Africa to legally abolish the death penalty. Hands Off Cain made the official announcement of Gabon’s abolition on February 14, 2011 (photo: Italian MP and Hands Off Cain campaigner Elisabetta Zamparutti with Gabonese foreign affairs minister Paul Toungui).
The organisation made the announcement one year after the law was passed, after receiving a letter of confirmation from the Gabonese government.
“The death penalty is now replaced by life imprisonment”
The law itself, published among a handful of other acts of government, stipulates that “the death penalty is now replaced by life imprisonment… those convicted [of such crimes] for life imprisonment must spend a minimum of 30 years in prison before being eligible for release or parole”.
The same text also outlaws the use of forced labour as a punishment in the military code, to be replaced by imprisonment.
The circumstances surrounding the delayed announcement have excited much speculation. Having been the official presenting country of the 2007 United Nations resolution for a moratorium on the death penalty, Gabon had been listed as abolitionist in practice for some time.
The country had abstained from the use of the death penalty for more than 20 years, making the announcement something less than a shock. But the motivation behind the year of secrecy remains and perhaps will remain a mystery.
Opportunity for further progress in Africa
Following the announcement, Hands Off Cain Secretary Sergio D’Elia noted that “the new Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba has kept his word. The abolition in Gabon confirms how the African continent is making enormous progress regarding human rights.”
The president of World Coalition member International Federation for Human Rights, Souhayr Belhassen, saw the announcement as an opportunity for even more progress in Africa : “We now call on Mali and Benin, who have both expressed intentions of abolishing the death penalty, to take the necessary steps quickly and join the growing camp of those who recognize the death penalty as being contrary to our values.”