YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – An Italian missionary working in the Central African Republic (CAR) has welcomed the end of capital punishment in the impoverished country.

The country’s National Assembly unanimously voted to abolish the death penalty on May 27. The new law also makes torture illegal.

Father Aurelio Gazzera, an Italian Carmelite missionary who has been working in CAR since 1971, praised the new law, although he remains uncomfortable with the fact that laws are often not respected in the war-ravaged country.

“The news of the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act is very good news. It is true that since 1982 – 41 years ago – there have been no more executions. But it is still good news,” he told Crux.

However, the priest noted that less formal means of eliminating people could still be a problem in a country where any regime that comes into power can still “threaten, arrest, and sometimes eliminate opponents or people who ‘disturb’.”

In 2013, a Muslim rebel group called Seleka took over the government of the country, giving rise to the pro-Christian anti-Balaka militia movement. Eventually, Seleka was driven out, but tit-for-tat violence between the two groups continues to this day, and the central government has until recently had trouble exercising power outside of the capital Bangui.

“In the last two years, the country has experienced a ‘state of emergency’ which has sometimes allowed the military and the police to arrest, threaten, or punish people without much regard for legal limits. And the curfew, introduced in January 2021, is still maintained,” Gazzera said.

With this vote CAR adds to the growing number of countries in Africa abolishing capital punishment. Chad abolished it in 2020 and Sierra Leon did the same in 2021. CAR has become the 24th African country and the 109th country in the world to abolish the death penalty.

In Zambia, President Hakainde Hichilema has asked the parliament to “consider removing the death penalty from the laws of Zambia,” in a move welcomed by Amnesty International, which also praised the Zambian leader for commuting the sentences of 30 prisoners on death row.

However, several African countries continue to issue death sentences, including Egypt, Botswana, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan.

In 2014, Cameroon upheld the death penalty especially for terrorism-related offenses, although the country observes a moratorium on the carrying out of actual executions.

“The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment that never proved to be efficient in the objectives it pursues, and our commitment to its universal abolishment makes us shocked each time it is used,” said Corentin Mançois, the Death Penalty Program Officer for FIACAT, an international federation of Christian organizations opposed to torture and capital punishment.

However, capital punishment still has much popular support, even in countries where it is abolished.

Jeane Ndongo, a CAR refugee who fled to Cameroon, said that the new law stops true justice from being done in a country where ethno-religious violence has nearly torn the country apart.

“What I fear the most is that in the absence of a law that should at least act as a deterrent, rebels and perhaps soldiers will continue to kill,” she told Crux.

“My father and elder brother were killed, and it may be frustrating to know that their killers may never find justice,” she added, noting that the abolition of the death penalty could offer them a sense of freedom from prosecution.

Gazzera said most victims of CAR’s civil war are less interested in executing their persecutors, but instead want to see more commitment to justice from public authorities.

“Rather than invoking the death penalty, the population would like a serious commitment. Despite the fact that the president, ministers, and authorities often call for an ‘end to impunity,’ it is still normal to see an ex-war criminal in office as a minister or as an advisor with impunity. The SPC [Special Criminal Court] managed to arrest Minister Hassan Bouba, but he was released by the gendarmerie and the presidential guard. And to top it all off, a few days later he was decorated publicly and officially on National Day.”

Bouba, the minister for livestock, was a former rebel leader who was arrested last year for “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” His supporters said that he was instrumental in disarming rebel groups and acting as a mediator in the war-torn country, and his arrest was politically motivated.