Zimbabwe's economy is plunging toward total ruin and the Government is looking for ways to stanch the bleeding it has inflicted on itself. In May, the Government announced that it would be selling wildlife from its game reserves, and even printing its own version of the US dollar amid a desperate cash shortage.
This week, a Government gazette issued by the country's nonagenarian dictator Robert Mugabe gave a blanket pardon to thousands of prisoners. The pardon extends to all women who are not on death row or serving life sentences - so even women who have been booked for murder but are serving shorter sentences will be released. It also includes all male prisoners under 18, regardless of their crime; prisoners over 60 who have completed two-thirds of their sentence; and prisoners who are terminally ill.
Priscilla Mthembo, Zimbabwe's superintendent of prisons, was quoted in the local media as saying, "We don't have the total figure at the moment because the verification process is still going on..."
The Government's mouthpiece newspaper, the Herald, chalked up the pardons to the need to decongest crowded prisons, which is certainly also an issue. The system has the capacity for 17,000, and currently houses almost 20,000. Reports indicated that the pardons would leave some women's wards entirely devoid of inmates. As such, it seems unlikely that decongestion was the main reason for Mugabe's decree.
"We are appealing to the people of Zimbabwe to embrace togetherness and accept the inmates, giving them a second chance at life through supporting them in different endeavors to earn a better living," Mthembo said. "Inmates should not take this pardon for granted. Let them go out there and exhibit the spirit of Ubuntu and respect the laws of the country."
The gazette came as a surprise to activists who had been advocating measures to relieve crowding in the prisons, which are notorious for their minimalism. Prisoners sleep on stone slabs and use a toilet in the middle of shared cells that might hold dozens of inmates.
"We were never informed, the relatives were never informed and reintegration isn't an easy process," said Peter Mandiyanike, executive director of Prison Fellowship, an organisation that advocates for prisoners' rights, in an interview with Bloomberg.
"The amnesty is welcome and we're grateful, but we should have been consulted because some of them don't have clothes, they don't have money for bus fare home," Mandiyanike said. "Some have been in prison so long they've grown old and are afraid to go home."