Zimbabwe has begun releasing more than 4,000 prisoners under a presidential amnesty that authorities say will help ease congestion in some overcrowded jails.
About 800 prisoners were released on Friday from the Central Prison and Chikurubi Maximum Prison in the capital, Harare. Jails in other parts of the country began releasing prisoners who qualified for the amnesty on Thursday, said Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services spokeswoman Meya Khanyezi.
She said the amnesty would “go a long way in reducing the prison population.” Zimbabwe’s prisons have a capacity of 17,000 but hold more than 20,000 inmates.
Former prisoners have in the past complained about overcrowding and other harsh conditions such as a lack of food and proper health care. Amnesty International has previously described the conditions as “deplorable.” The Southern African nation of 15 million people regularly uses the presidential amnesty to decongest prisons.
A beneficiary of the latest amnesty, John Mafararikwa, who was serving a 17-month sentence for theft, expressed relief.
“It’s overcrowded and the food is bad. Most of the time we would eat food prepared without cooking oil,” said the 71-year-old, boarding a prison bus taking him and other amnesty beneficiaries away from Harare Central Prison.
Song, dance and prayers marked the event. Some people of advanced age walked with the aid of crutches. A small group wore graduation robes after receiving diplomas in bible studies.
At Chikurubi Maximum Prison, freed women prisoners hugged prison officers, while men rushed for the back of an open truck waiting to transport them from the jail. Others thanked President Emmerson Mnangagwa for showing mercy, including the superintendent of Chikurubi prison.
"I am thankful to the President, his Excellency the President Comrade E.D Mnangagwa for this programme. He has done a great job, he has done a good thing for these mothers. It shows that our father the president has women at heart," Mavis Dzimbanhete said.
All women imprisoned for non-violent crimes and who served a third of their sentences are to be released. Terminally ill people will be released regardless of the crime committed, while blind prisoners and those “who are physically challenged that they cannot be catered for in a prison” had their remaining sentences fully remitted.
Prisoners aged 60 years old and above and juveniles are among beneficiaries of the amnesty, while those who have been on the death row for the past 10 years had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
Zimbabwe still has the death penalty but has not hanged anyone since 2005. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has previously said he is against the death penalty.
Those serving life in prison but have been in jail for the past 20 years will also be freed.
Prisoners who committed violent crimes such as murder, carjacking, human trafficking and sexual offenses but have served three quarters of their sentences are also being released. Those locked up for crimes such as treason, robbery, public violence and sabotaging electricity infrastructure were ineligible for release.