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The Paradox of Botswana’s Death Penalty

In the global effort to end capital punishment, Amnesty International calls Sub-Saharan Africa a “beacon of hope." But one country that typically ranks near the top of regional governance indexes continues to defend the practice.

LONDON – In Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with no shortage of development challenges, Botswana stands out for its strong economy, stable democracy, and commitment to the rule of law. But by one measure – its support for capital punishment – Botswana is frighteningly narrow-minded. If the country of my birth is to retain its reputation as one of Africa’s most liberal states, it must confront its affinity for the gallows.

According to Amnesty International, most of Africa is abandoning the death penalty. Today, just ten African countries allow for capital punishment, and only a handful ever use it. Botswana – an affluent, landlocked, diamond-exporting state – is among the leading exceptions. After a lull in killings in 2017, Botswana has resumed executing convicted murderers; Joseph Tselayarona, 28, was executed in February, while Uyapo Poloko, 37, was put to death in May.

Botswana’s legal system – and the basis for capital punishment – is rooted in English and Roman-Dutch common law. According to the country’s penal code, the preferred punishment for murder is death by hanging. And, while the constitution protects a citizen’s “right to life,” it makes an exception when the termination of a life is “in execution of the sentence of a court.”

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