After nearly 35 years without an execution, could new research that sheds light on public openness to abolition help Kenya to abolish capital punishment?
A new two-part study, commissioned by The Death Penalty Project, London, in partnership with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Nairobi, has revealed that far from being staunchly in support of retention, the Kenyan public is open to abolition, and that the country’s opinion formers are overwhelmingly in favour of such change.
The research, led by Prof. Carolyn Hoyle at the University of Oxford, sought to better understand attitudes and openness to abolition of capital punishment in Kenya.
Part one set out to investigate the commonly held assumption that the Kenyan public strongly supports the death penalty, an argument often made by policymakers in justifying its continued retention in Kenya. Part two focused on the views of the country’s opinion formers, those considered influential in shaping public views.
Through nuanced questioning of 1,672 people, the research revealed that only just over half of the public support retention, while almost all of the 42 opinion formers interviewed are strongly in support of abolition of the death penalty.
- 51% of the public initially supported the retention of the death penalty but only 32% were strongly in favour
- 90% of opinion formers are in favour of abolishing the death penalty
The research shows that when presented with more information on the application of the death penalty, including realistic case scenarios or mitigating circumstances surrounding the case, such as the age, background and mental health of the offender, public support for the punishment falls dramatically.
Most of the opinion formers interviewed were very well informed on the administration of the death penalty in Kenya, but the general public’s knowledge of the death penalty was more limited.
The findings revealed concerns among both the public and opinion formers around the possibility that innocent people could be sentenced to death in Kenya.
- 61% of the public thought that ‘many’ or ‘some’ innocent people have been sentenced to death in Kenya and these concerns reduced support for retention among the public to 28%
- Almost all (88%) of the opinion formers believe wrongful convictions occur fairly regularly
The research also explored whether people would accept a government policy of abolition despite their initial position.
- 59% of the public, who were initially in favour of retention, said that they would accept a policy of abolition
- More than three quarters of opinion formers believed that the public would accept abolition of the death penalty, notwithstanding initial reservations, and nearly all would support an act of parliament to abolish the death penalty
Kenya is among the minority of countries that continue to retain the death penalty in law, yet it has not carried out an execution since 1987. In 2017, the country’s supreme court declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional and since the introduction of discretionary sentencing, the number of death sentences imposed has reduced. However, to date, over 600 people remain on death row.
Parvais Jabbar, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project said:
“In countries that retain the death penalty, governments often cite public support as a key argument against abolition, yet in relation to Kenya, the findings of this research do not support that claim. They show that not only do those in positions of influence resolutely support abolition, but that the public holds nuanced and flexible views that in no way impede abolition. We are starting to see a shift away from the death penalty across Africa, most recently in Sierra Leone, with new plans to abolish announced in Zambia and the Central African Republic. It is possible that Zimbabwe and Ghana too will make similar announcements by the end of the year. We hope that we will also see Kenya take steps to remove capital punishment soon, and that our research can support policymakers as they consider this important issue.”
Professor Carolyn Hoyle, author of the reports and Director of the Oxford Death Penalty Research Unit said:
“In countries that retain the death penalty, governments often cite public support as a key argument against abolition, yet in relation to Kenya, the findings of this research do not support that claim. They show that not only do those in positions of influence resolutely support abolition, but that the public holds nuanced and flexible views that in no way impede abolition.”
Notes to Editors
In 2021, The Death Penalty Project in partnership with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, commissioned Prof. Carolyn Hoyle, Director of The Death Penalty Research Unit, at the University of Oxford, to undertake research in order to provide accurate data on attitudes towards the death penalty in Kenya and facilitate a constructive conversation on the future of capital punishment.
Part One: A Public Ready to Accept Abolition – A survey of a representative random sample of 1,672 members of the Kenyan public.
Authored by Prof. Carolyn Hoyle with assistance from Dr Diana Batchelor
Part Two: Overwhelming Support for Abolition Among Opinion Leaders – Interviews were conducted with 42 opinion leaders; people considered influential in shaping, or in responding to, public opinion from across Kenya.
Authored by Prof. Carolyn Hoyle and Dr Lucy Harry
The research was made possible by funds awarded to The Death Penalty Project from the European Union and the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Death Penalty Project
The Death Penalty Project is a legal action NGO with special consultative status before the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The organisation provides free representation to people facing the death penalty worldwide, with a focus on the Commonwealth. It uses the law to protect prisoners facing execution and promote fair criminal justice systems, where the rights of all people are respected.
For interview requests, quotes or more information please contact Joey Greene, The Death Penalty Project, Communications Lead, [email protected] or Isobelle Degale, Communications Officer [email protected]
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights is an independent National human rights institution created by Article 59 of the Constitution of Kenya and established through the KNCHR At of Parliament (The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Act 2011). It is the state’s lead agency in the promotion and protection of human rights. The operations of the KNCHR are guided by the United Nations- approved Paris Principles on the establishment and functioning of independent national human rights institutions. KNCHR has been accredited by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) and is a member of the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions, the ICC’s regional grouping for Africa.
For interview requests, quotes or more information please contact Samson Omondi, Senior Human Rights Officer at KNCHR [email protected]
Carolyn Hoyle is Professor of Criminology and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit and the University of Oxford. For almost thirty years, she has taught and researched at the University of Oxford, with a particular focus on the death penalty. She is co-author, with Professor Roger Hood, of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, as well as other books, reports and academic journals on capital punishment.
For more information or interview please contact Carolyn Hoyle [email protected]
The death penalty in Kenya
The last execution in Kenya took place in July 1987. Having not carried out an execution for nearly 35 years, Kenya is considered ‘abolitionist de facto’. In 2017, the country went a step further and abolished the mandatory death penalty, but to this day death sentences continue to be handed down. There are four crimes currently punishable by death: treason, murder, robbery with violence and attempted robbery with violence. There are approximately 600 people on death row in Kenya today.
The death penalty around the world
Over the last four decades the number of countries to have abolished the death penalty has continued to increase, and those that regularly execute find themselves in a small minority. Today, 110 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, 8 for ordinary crimes, 55 are considered retentionist, although many meet the UN definition of abolitionist de facto and have not carried out an execution for over 10 years.
In 2021, 2,052 death sentences were recorded and at least 579 executions carried out across 18 countries. However, these figures do not account for the thousands of executions carried out in China, North Korea and Vietnam, where death penalty data is a state secret.