Prisoners who are serving life imprisonment will now be considered for early release on good behaviour just like their counterparts with lesser sentences.
This follows a landmark judgment handed down yesterday by the Constitutional Court declaring it unconstitutional for inmates to serve life imprisonment without any possibility of parole or release on licence.
The Prisons Act provides for the setting up of a parole board to review from time to time the sentences of inmates serving lengthy periods of between seven and 20 years, to the exclusion of those serving life jail terms.
The board assesses the suitability or non-suitability of each prisoner for release and makes recommendations to the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.
Those who pass the test will be released early.
Life prisoners would not be considered for parole and the only option available to them was the Presidential pardon, which lay entirely with the President’s discretion and could not be legally challenged.
The Presidential pardon was rarely extended to prisoners serving life sentences and during the court hearing the State could not tell the court the number of such convicts who were released through amnesty.
The challenge was filed by Obediah Makoni, who was convicted and slapped with life imprisonment for killing his girlfriend in 1995.
For 21 years, Makoni has been languishing in prison without any hope of benefiting from the parole system.
Through his lawyer, Mr Tendai Biti, he successfully mounted the constitutional challenge.
He also sought his immediate release.
However, the court did not grant the order for release but prescribed a parole board of inquiry into his suitability for release before recommendations were forwarded to the minister in terms of the law.
The court ruled as unconstitutional, the exclusion of the life prisoners from the parole.
The unanimous judgment of the Constitutional Court authored by Justice Bharat Patel proposed the amendment of Part XX of the Prisons Act to include life prisoners among the potential beneficiaries of the parole.
Justice Patel ruled that the current legal system discriminating against inmates serving life imprisonment was a violation of human dignity and subjecting the group of prisoners to cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
“It is declared that:
1. “A life sentence imposed on a convicted prisoner without the possibility of parole or release on licence constitutes a violation of human dignity and amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in breach of Sections 51 and 53 of the of the Constitution.
2. “The provisions of Part XX of the Prisons Act to the extent that they exclude prisoners sentenced to imprisonment for life from parole or release on licence process, contravene the right to equal protection and benefit of the law under Section 56(1) of the Constitution.
3. “Subject to paragraph 4 below, the further incarceration of the applicant amounts to a breach of his right to human dignity, right to protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and right to equal protection and benefit of the law under Sections 51, 53 and 56(1) of the Constitution.
4. “Pending the enactment of the legislation amending the provisions of Part XX of the Prisons Act, so as to conform with the right to equal protection and benefit of the law under Section 56(1) of the Constitution, the respondents shall apply those provisions, mutatis mutandis, to every prisoner sentenced to imprisonment for life, including the applicant.”
Mr Biti described the decision as revolutionary judgment.
“This is yet another revolutionary judgment. I am just humbled to be part of this historic legal process yet again,” said Mr Biti.
Makoni committed the offence in Marondera when he was 19-years-old but he is now 40.
During the hearing, the court heard that apart from spending a lengthy period in jail, Makoni proved to be a prisoner of excellent behaviour.
Prison authorities confirmed Makoni as a well-behaved prisoner who was exposed to horrendous conditions in jail.
The authorities also admitted in court that the condition of prisons in Zimbabwe was not ideal due to current economic hardships