Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has pardoned thousands of inmates to make room in the country's overcrowded, cash-strapped prisons.
The move is "set to decongest national prisons and promote better living conditions," the state-run Herald reports. But as Reuters notes, this also comes as "prisons struggle to feed inmates due to lack of funding from the government."
Mugabe's pardons apply to at least 2,000 inmates, according to the Herald, including all juveniles "irrespective of the graveness of their crimes" and "all convicted female prisoners except those on death row or serving life sentences." The newspaper adds that one women's prison outside Harare is now "literally empty," aside from two inmates serving life sentences.
Amnesty also applies to those sentenced to life in prison before 1995, those serving sentences of less than 36 months, those who are terminally ill and those convicted of stealing livestock. But the Herald reports that inmates convicted of "murder, treason, rape, armed robbery, sexual offences or violence driven offenses" were not pardoned.
"Our 46 prisons nationwide are overpopulated. We have a holding capacity of 17 000, but we have been holding over 19 000 prisoners," Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service spokeswoman Priscilla Mthembo tells the Herald.
Food shortages have fueled conflict inside prisons. As Reuters reports, "Five prisoners died in March 2015 after being shot by police in a protest over food shortages, which turned violent as some of them attempted to break out of jail."
NPR's Gregory Warner tells our Newscast unit that Mugabe has tried mass pardons before to make room in prisons:
"In fact, the last mass pardon in Zimbabwe was just two years ago, in 2014. Then also about 2,000 prisoners were released to alleviate the same problem: massive overcrowding and food shortages that have led to inmates dying of malnutrition. So why have prison populations shot up again so quickly? In part, bureaucracy. A study last year said a third of Zimbabwe's prisoners had not faced trial. So while convicts get released, those simply accused of a crime languish — and starve."
Before the last mass pardon, a 2013 report from the U.S. Embassy in Harare describing dire prison conditions says scores of prisoners died as a result of "nutrition-related illnesses." Here's more from the report:
"Between January and late November, over 100 prisoners died in custody due to nutrition-related illnesses induced by food shortages and other natural causes. Poor sanitary conditions contributed to disease, including diarrhea, measles, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Lighting and ventilation were inadequate. There were insufficient mattresses, warm clothing, sanitary supplies, and hygiene products. Prisoners had no access to clean water."
As Gregory notes, one group is "conspicuously absent" from those pardoned: "political prisoners who've challenged the 36-year reign of the 92-year-old president."
Zimbabwe's food shortages extend beyond prison walls, as the Two-Way has reported:
"The region is facing a severe drought that has taken a toll on food harvests. According to UNICEF, 37 percent of households in Zimbabwe are hungry. The dry conditions have "decimated" livestock. In February, the situation prompted Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to declare a state of disaster."
The blistering drought recently prompted the country to put some of the wild animals in public reserves up for sale.