HARARE – After serving three years of his 290-year jail term, Thomas Chirembwe woke up to the news that his sentence had been slashed to 55 years.
His maximum sentence had been reduced by 235 years after the High Court of Criminal Appeal had ruled that sentence imposed on him by presiding magistrate Simon Kachambwa in 2014 for 30 counts of rape, armed robbery and unlawful entry in aggravating circumstances was too harsh.
The serial rapist-cum-armed robber broke into households, stole valuables and raped 13 women without protection.
During his sentencing Chirembwe’s wife — who was heavily pregnant at the time — wept uncontrollably.
In his review, Justice Amy Tsanga of the High Court, it was noted that Kachambwa’s sentencing went beyond the time any individual was expected to serve on earth.
“The convictions were proper but the sentences induce more than a sense of shock to the point of being ridiculous given that no one lives up to 290 years. As such, much of the sentence serves no purpose other than being of shock value,” read the judge’s review.
“…increasing public sentiment especially from women’s groups against perceived leniency in meting out sentences to rapists, given the prevalence of sexual offences against women and girls appear to have influenced the sentence.
“In my view, while there was no misdirection in the splitting of charges for unlawful entry and those of rape, the misdirection was in sentencing each count of unlawful entry separately from rape given the cumulative effect of the sentence…which was excessive and could have been made to run concurrently given their similar nature.”
Legal experts argue that the case underlines the worst excesses of the Zimbabwean justice system.
Chirembwe’s offences left the magistrate with no choice but to lock him up for effectively the rest of his life.
“Looking at life expectancy, it does not make sense that at first it was decided that he must spend more than 200 years in jail… even still, the reviewed sentence does not make sense because under the current conditions, he may not survive up to the 55 years,” human rights lawyer Jeremiah Bamu said.
“Instead of giving a sentence which cannot be fulfilled, magistrates should make sentences run concurrently rather than ridiculous potions which do not serve the idea of the criminal procedure which is to punish an offender.”
Another lawyer, Liberty Gono of Machaya and Associates, echoed similar sentiments, saying the justice system should be seen as corrective.
“There is a tendency by magistrates not to treat similar charges as one for purposes of sentencing. This then normally results in imposing of hefty penalty that might not serve the purpose,” he said.
In one of the heinous crimes committed by the rapist who was nailed by prosecutor Michael Reza, the court heard that on September 18, 2011 at around 4am, Chirembwe, armed with a knife, unlawfully entered a 31-year-old woman’s residence and switched off the lights before demanding money.
He was given $30 but proceeded to rape the woman.
In September 2012, Chirembwe raped a Queensdale woman three times before stealing household goods and money.
On December 5, 2012, Chirembwe forced his way into another house and stole valuables worth thousands of dollars and raped another woman before leaving the scene. Zimbabwe has adopted a battery of laws of unprecedented severity to accompany a crackdown on crimes such as rape, a national priority at this time.
It has seen the prison population explode, with a record 19 000 people now behind bars in facilities designed to handle 17 000, including the mentally ill and petty criminals. The Justice ministry has unveiled a draft plan to lower prison overcrowding that involves pardons for thousands of prisoners, but the proposed emergency ordinance must first obtain presidential approval.
The main focus would include sentences less than five years, excluding sexual offences, murder, violence and corruption, and inmates that are over 60 years old, those pregnant or with young children and with a grave medical condition.
Justice ministry permanent secretary Virginia Mabhiza told our sister paper the Daily News last week that the proposed release of the prisoners is subject to Cabinet approval.
If approved, it will be published in the Government Gazette as Clemency Order No. 1 of 2018.
Critics of the move — and there are many, across the political spectrum — say it was part of a pattern of failure: of thousands of prisoners released each year in Zimbabwe, some return to prison within three years.
As for Chirembwe, he is serving an unconscionably long prison sentence because of State mandatory minimum laws passed by politicians pandering to public fears of crime. Rights lawyers said even after his sentence was slashed, there is no prospect he will ever get out.
But others say if someone commits a crime as awful as rape, he should not get the privilege of being treated with sympathy. Knowing that the people who ruined their lives are locked away can be a form of relief for survivors of rape. Zimbabwe’s penalties for sexual predation are already the most severe in the developing world. Today, sex offenders constitute the fastest growing segment of Zimbabwe’s prison population.
The incidence of rape cases in the country is alarming and absurd. Something drastic and urgent should be done to check the trend, those for harsh penalties argue.
The trauma suffered by victims cannot be overemphasised. Those who oppose harsh sentences argue that rapists do not deserve to spend taxpayer dollars to live long sentences. To be given the death penalty would be too easy of an escape as well, they argue. Some say the crime of rape should warrant extreme physical and psychological punishment like castration.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa is on record saying that adopting castration as a means to punish those found guilty of rape would not solve the problem and also asserts that it was also not an answer to the sexual abuse of minors. He has said castration would “be a step too far.”
“The imposition of mandatory sentencing is the best practice applied in other jurisdictions such as Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa,” Mnangagwa has said.
He said that principles with regards to minimising mandatory sentencing on rape and other sexual offences would be presented to the Cabinet soon.
Former president Robert Mugabe in 2013 called for harsher penalties as part of measures to deal with the vice. The veteran leader at the time described the crime as a rampant problem and insisted on tougher action, adding that he was open to the introduction of castration.