(Source: IRIN Africa, 11 June 2008)
BAMAKO, 11 June 2008 (IRIN) - A new bill to abolish the death penalty is sparking hot debate in the National Assembly amid protests from Islamic groups who say abolishing it goes against Islamic principles.
Photo: Tugela Ridley/IRIN The President is trying to pass a law banning the death penalty in the National Assembly but protests from religious groups are delaying the bill’s progress.
“Our recommendations focus on maintaining the death penalty in conformity with Islamic principles,” said Boubacar Camara, an Imam and a member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM). “The Islamic Council refuses to endorse a legal decision that is fundamentally opposed to what God and His Prophet have decreed.”
President Amadou Toumani Touré introduced the bill to abolish the death penalty in a speech he delivered in September 2007 but protests from religious groups and the opposition party Union Nationale pour la Renaissance (UNPR) in November and December 2007 put the bill on hold.
It is now being debated once again, and if passed by the National Assembly the President would initiate a process to amend all other laws referring to the death penalty, including the penal code.
Though the death penalty has not been enforced in Mali since 1979, the controversy is one of principle over practice, according to Lamine Keita, communication officer at the department of justice.
Banning the death penalty goes against Islamic principles and would weaken the state’s ability to deter crimes, according to Camara.
"The death penalty is defined in Islam as a legitimate act of retaliation, as enacted by God in the Koran,” he told IRIN. “According to the Koran it allows one to preserve human life and social stability. Its abolition would open the way to widespread insecurity, anarchy, and general social instability."
Under the Koran the death penalty is a “required and unequivocal requirement” in criminal cases involving deliberate attacks on human life, according to Camara.
Thierno Hady Thiam, chairman of the Islamic council, agrees the nation’s security is at stake. "We should simply abandon the bill because it could undermine the security foundations of the state and society. For instance [crimes such as] high treason committed against the state or complicity with external enemies or coups d’etat would be seen as less dangerous to attempt.”
The same groups have expressed opposition to a proposed amendment to the family law in Mali, claiming it too goes against Islamic principles.
But it is not only religious groups who oppose the ban. According to one observer, opposition cuts across many sections of society. Amadaou Togo, an adviser in the justice ministry told IRIN abolishing the death penalty would be inappropriate in Mali.
"It is unfair to ask authorities to adopt… a legal document which includes clauses that go against citizens’ religious and moral sensitivities. Clearly there is no way that they [the authorities] can fight for ideas that are imported from societies whose practices and customs are a million miles from ours," he argued.
But human rights groups welcome the President’s actions. "We salute the head of state in abolishing the death penalty in Mali,” Brahima Koné, president of the Malian Association for Human Rights (AMDH) said. “The death penalty is anti-constitutional, given that article one of the constitution proclaims the sanctity of human life.”
Koné continued, “For years, we have recommended the death penalty be abolished, particularly given the possibility of errors in making a legal pronouncement in a state like Mali where medical services lack the means to detect the mental state of offenders.”
And according to AMDH records, when analysing the link between the death penalty and crimes committed in other countries, it does not deter crime. "The president should not maintain the death penalty for the simple reason that it is not a deterrent,” Koné added.
Though it has not been enforced for many years Koné fears maintaining the death penalty in law is risky because it could be abused by political groups in the future.
The human rights organisation Amnesty International has been running a campaign pushing Parliament to adopt the bill since 2007. “Two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948," said Adama Sangaré from Mali Amnesty International, “and Mali should join them.”
And according to Sangaré, some members of the Muslim community are supporting Amnesty’s campaign, arguing in their interpretation of the Koran, it is forbidden to kill.
While it is far from certain that the bill will be passed, even if the President does succeed, amending all related laws will be time-consuming and complicated estimates Lamine Keita, communications officer in the Justice ministry
But Ladji Samaké, head of the country’s prisons hopes passing the bill will catalyse a wider overhaul of the country’s incarceration system, which he says is currently characterised by poor facilities and overcrowding. “We need to put in place better prison facilities, and set up detention centres for prisoners with psychological problems – that is the most important next step,” he told IRIN.
The authorities should ensure that those people who are not condemned to death are confined for life so they do not present a danger to society, he added.
Neither side looks ready to shift as the debate continues, and several members of Parliament are calling for the justice ministry to hold a day of discussion between all interested parties to try to find a way forward.
“We need to canvas civil society’s voices on the issue and try to get out of this impasse,” Samaké told IRIN.