This article was originally posted MyJoyOnline, 25 July 2023.
Ghana’s Parliament on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, abolished the death penalty for all ordinary crimes including murder, genocide, piracy and smuggling of gold and diamonds and attempted murder.
This was done through the passage of a private member’s Bill to amend the Criminal Offences (Amendment) Act, tabled by the Member of Parliament for Madina, Francis Xavier-Sosu.
Working alongside Ghanaian parliamentarians and campaign groups, the London legal action NGO, The Death Penalty Project (DPP) played a pivotal role in the run-up to the decision.
Ghana is the 29th country to abolish the death penalty in Africa and the 124th globally. There are currently 170 men and 6 women on its death row, whose death sentences will now be replaced by life imprisonment.
Ghana has not carried out an execution since 1993, but until Tuesday, July 25, the courts were still imposing death sentences, and the death row grew every year.
In cases of murder, the death penalty was the mandatory punishment, leaving judges no discretion to impose a lesser sentence. Last year, seven people were sentenced to death.
The DPP has been active in Ghana for more than a decade, providing free representation and support to those facing the death penalty, working with Ghanaian NGO the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).
In 2010, when the DPP was just beginning to work in Ghana, abolition of capital punishment was recommended by Ghana’s Constitution Review Commission. The country came close to enacting this in 2012, but the path the government tried to adopt, amending the constitution, proved challenging, and in the end it failed.
However, the DPP advised that it would be possible to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes by amending the criminal statute – which has been achieved today.
The DPP worked closely with Mr Sosu after he introduced the Bill last year. Before it was debated by Parliament, it was referred by the Speaker to the Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. The Committee’s reports and their recommendation were unequivocal: that the House should accept its reports, pass Mr Sosu’s Bill and replace the sentence of death with life imprisonment – and Parliament has done just that.
Before Ghana took this historic step, the DPP had the privilege of being able to offer the Committee expert advice and guidance, which was provided by some of the world’s leading academic experts in the field, including Professor Carolyn Hoyle, Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit at Oxford University, Dr Kofi Boakye from City, University of London, who had published a study on public attitudes to the death penalty in Ghana in 2015, and Dr Justice Tankebe of the University of Cambridge.
These academics, joined by the DPP’s co-executive director Saul Lehrfreund, presented a memorandum containing evidence-based arguments as to why the death penalty should be abolished to Ghana’s parliamentarians in July 2022. This was endorsed by the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA).
The DPP also engaged with Ghana’s policymakers, civil society organisations, the Bar Association, religious leaders and the diplomatic community. It is grateful for the immense support provided by the British High Commission to Ghana and Australian High Commission to Ghana and other diplomats in Ghana. All these efforts helped to shift Ghana’s national conversation around capital punishment.
This is not the first instance of DPPs legal work and expertise creating monumental change. In 2021
the NGO played a significant role in bringing about abolition of the death penalty in Sierra Leone.
Harriet Thompson, British High Commissioner to Ghana, said: “In abolishing the Death Penalty for ordinary crimes, Ghana joins the growing family of Commonwealth countries that have taken this historic step. The UK opposes the Death Penalty in all circumstances and we stand together with Ghana to mark this achievement.”
Francis-Xavier Kojo Sosu, Member for Madina Constituency, Ghana, said: “On death row, prisoners woke up thinking this could be their last day on earth. They were like the living dead: psychologically, they had ceased to be humans. Abolishing the death penalty shows that we are determined as a society not to be inhumane, uncivil, closed, retrogressive and dark. It opens the way to further realization of a free, open, progressive, inclusive and secure society instead, and reflects our common belief that the sanctity of life is inviolable.”
Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project said: “Today’s vote for abolition is historic and places Ghana squarely within the worldwide trend, which is especially noticeable in Africa: in the past five years, Chad, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Zambia have all taken bold steps to eradicate capital punishment. Francis Sosu MP who initiated the process by introducing the private member’s bills should be lauded for his courage, tenacity, and his principled opposition to the death penalty on the grounds that all citizens should be guaranteed the right to life and to live free from torture and cruelty.”
Professor Carolyn Hoyle, Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit at the University of Oxford said: “Being asked to offer advice to the Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs was an honour and a privilege. In my visits to Ghana, I have been deeply struck by the warmth and dignity of its people and their respect for the right to life. I cannot easily express how delighted I am to see this value enshrined in law by today’s parliamentary vote.”
John McKendrick KC of CLA’s Executive Committee said: “Today, Ghana has firmly demonstrated its
commitment to upholding human rights. Ghana’s decision to abolish the death penalty sends a powerful message that capital punishment should play no proper role in the sentencing disposal options of a humane court. Public protection, deterrence and retribution can all find true expression in lengthy incarceration. Ultimately it is the role of a Commonwealth state to protect life, not to destroy it.”
Kofi E. Boakye, Senior Lecturer at City, University of London said: “I am delighted to see the Parliament of Ghana take this bold and historic step to vote overwhelmingly to pass the private member’s bill that brings an end to capital punishment in Ghana. This is a commendable step that reflects the will of the Ghanaian people, as captured in the Report of Constitutional Review Commission and in our research.
“I was honoured to be invited to give evidence to the Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the Judiciary Committee, and to engage with various stakeholders. Special thanks to the Chairman of the Committee, Hon. Kwame AnyimaduAntwi, and to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Rt Hon. Alban Sumana Kingsford Bagbin and Rt. Hon. Joseph Osei-Owusu, for their leadership in moving the process forward. Today’s vote will remain an important legacy of the 8th Parliament of Ghana.”