A recommendation made by the former Ombudsman, Lithebe Maine, that deserving prisoners on remand and those serving less than six months imprisonment should be helped to vote in the national elections is still gathering dust in the Ministry of Home Affairs, almost ten years after it was put forward.
Sources in the ministry say nothing had been done on this issue and expressed no hope that anything would be done about it in the near future.
”I work within this Ministry and as far as I am concerned it has never been discussed at any forum in the Ministry since the recommendation was made and currently there is no hope that it will be discussed in the near future”, said the source, who requested anonymity. “I think people just feel that prisoners lose all their rights the moment they are convicted. According to Maine, who made the recommendation, this is wrong”.
Asked to comment on the matter, Abel Modimo, a practicing lawyer, said that it is a violation of rights of deserving prisoners. Incarceration, he said, tempers with prisoners’ rights to movement, adding that he saw no reason why the government continues to disfranchise them even after a recommendation by the country’s Ombudsman.
“This is absurd and cruel,” said Modimo. “There is no reason why they are continuously being denied their right to vote. This might make people believe that it is being done for political gains.”
Another lawyer who declined to be named said that it causes concern when the government pays lip service to recommendations made by institutions such as the Ombudsman. The institution, he said, was set up to ensure that there was transparency and accountability in the country, adding that to ignore its recommendations spoke volumes of the country’s sincerity in adhering to the principles of democracy.
”I just hope that they will implement this recommendation soon, otherwise it’s making a mockery of the whole idea of coming up with the body.”
The lawyer further added that he hoped that human rights bodies in the country would sue on behalf of those prisoners whose rights are being violated.
”I just hope one of the human rights bodies sues the government for this gross violation of human rights,” he said.
The Executive Secretary of the Independent Electoral Commission, Gabriel Seeletso, has in the past denied having anything to do with denying prisoners their voting rights saying that the Commission helps any voter who has registered with them and that if deserving prisoners are registered with them they will vote.
Besides being denied their voting rights, prisoners who go to jail whilst on government-sponsored old age pension loose their right to the pension the moment they are convicted. This, we have reliably learnt, is done because the government feels that since it will be feeding the convicted pensioner whilst in prison, there is no reason why the person should be given old age pension.
Last week, President Festus Mogae said that he was considering the issue of releasing some prisoners serving prison terms for lesser crimes, as is the practice in other countries. Botswana’s prisons are reported to be holding double the number of inmates they were designed to hold.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, Bruce Palai, was not available to comment on the issue.