Landmark legal ruling says South Africa cannot deport people at risk of death penalty

A ruling by South Africa’s highest court has confirmed that the deportation of two individuals to Botswana cannot go ahead because if deported they face a real risk of the death penalty in what Amnesty International has hailed as a “principled stance”.

In a key moment in South African law, the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg earlier today rejected an appeal brought by the government against an earlier ruling that any transfer of Jerry Phale and Emmanuel Tsebe to Botswana without prior assurances that the death penalty would not be applied, would be unlawful.

During the ruling Acting Justice Raymond Zondo said that when South Africa adopted its constitution it affirmed its commitment to upholding the human rights of every person in everything that it did, and could not deport or extradite anyone where doing so would expose him or her to the real risk of the imposition and execution of the death penalty.

Addressing the South African government's “legitimate” concern that South Africa could be perceived “as a safe haven for illegal foreigners and fugitives from justice”, Justice Zondo said that the situation would not arise “if countries seeking an extradition of someone in Mr Phale's position would be prepared to give the requisite assurance”.

Amnesty International Africa Deputy Director Noel Kututwa said:

"The Constitutional Court should be commended for its continued principled stance against the death penalty. Also, it has once again shown exemplary judicial independence.

"The judgment shows that the government of a state that has abolished the death penalty cannot simply wash its hands of its possible contribution to death sentences elsewhere.

“Under international law, an abolitionist state is absolutely prohibited from forcibly transferring a person, who could be subject to the death penalty, to a retentionist State, unless reliable assurances have been obtained which effectively eliminates that risk.”

Amnesty had intervened as an “Amicus Curiae” or friend of the court in the Constitutional Court hearing and was represented by South African counsel.

Both Phale and Tsebe were wanted in Botswana for the murder of their partners, and both had fled to South Africa. Last September the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg had ruled that Phale and Tsebe - who died from an illness in 2010 while in custody - should not be deported. Tsebe continued to be included in the process because both his lawyers and the state wanted the original application to be heard.

The death penalty has been in force in Botswana since the country became independent in 1966. It is the only country in Southern Africa which still carries out executions. Most recently Zibani Thamo was hanged for murder on 31 January 2012. Botswana has executed people each year between 2006 and 2010.

The death penalty in Bostwana is used against those convicted for murder, treason, an attempt on the life of the head of state and the military offences of mutiny and desertion in the face of the enemy. Executions are often carried out unannounced to the public and the family members of the condemned prisoner. Families are not allowed to attend the burial of a condemned prisoner nor visit their graves once they are buried.

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