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Willie Kimani murder: Kenya has not carried out an execution for 35 years

On Friday, the High Court sentenced former police officer Sergeant Fredrick Ole Leliman to death for the murder of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani and two others in 2016.

However, Leliman, like many others before him who have in the past been sentenced to death in Kenya, is highly unlike to be taken to the gallows during his jail term.

This is because Kenya has not carried out an execution for 35 years, although the death penalty remains in law and courts continuing to sentence defendants to death for murder, robbery with violence, attempted robbery with violence and treason.

An army officer behind the attempted coup of 1982 was the last person to be executed in Kenya, but the country still hosts a death row population.

Today there are around 600 convicts on death row in Kenyan prisons.

In December 2017, a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court declared the mandatory nature of the death penalty unconstitutional, leading to the creation of the Taskforce on the Review of the Mandatory Death Sentence.

Also read: How widow got overwhelmed by sentencing of Willie Kimani murder convicts

The Constitution of Kenya provides for the right to life of every person except in cases where the individual has been sentenced to death by a court of law for committing a criminal offense such as treason, murder, or robbery with violence.

In 2009, the late Presidents Mwai Kibaki commuted all the sentence of all death row prisoners to life imprisonment. His successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, did the same in 2016.

A recent survey by Death Penalty project shows that Kenyans are split down the middle over the death sentence, with one in every two supporting it.

While key justice stakeholders are pushing for total removal of the death penalty in Kenya, a fraction of Kenyans still support the death penalty for persons convicted of murder and robbery with violence.

The opinion carried out in 2022 indicates that 51 per cent of Kenyans support death rows as a way of punishing the offenders.

The latest research by the Kenya National commission of Human Rights (KNCHR) on prisoners facing death penalty shows the number of these sentenced commuted from death to life imprisonment had gradually increased after the Supreme Court decision with only 72 per cent of them still under death row.

Also read: Ex-policeman Fredrick Leliman gets death penalty for Willie Kimani killings

Life imprisonment in Kenya’s prison system is until death with little chance of early release, unlike other countries in the west where prisoners can have their sentences reduced based on good behaviour and work performance.

The death penalty is a controversial topic globally due to moral issues and its effectiveness in deterring crime. Some people believe the state should not have the power to deliberately kill a person while others believe a person who kills deserves to die.

Research has shown that the death penalty may not effectively deter crime, and in some cases, people have been executed for murder even though they were not guilty.

In Kenya, there is a cause for concern as people have been sentenced to death for robbery with violence, which includes being armed with a dangerous weapon, using personal violence, or being part of a group. This is a broader category than murder and has resulted in more death sentences.

In the past, the Court of Appeal has made rulings on the constitutionality of the death penalty and has concluded that it should be a possibility and not the only penalty. In 2013, the court ruled that the death penalty for robbery with violence was constitutional.

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