[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
The Constitutional Court today found that the President had erred and had acted irrationally by not affording the victims of “politically motivated crimes” a hearing before making a decision on whether to pardon the perpetrators of those crimes. In Albutt and Others vs President of the RSA and Others Chief Justice Ngcobo, writing for a unanimous court, upheld the decision of the High Court. The High Court interdicted the President from pardoning these prisoners before affording the victims a hearing about the matter.
In this case the stated purpose of pardoning the prisoners for their “political crimes” was nation-building and national reconciliation. The court thus held that the participation of victims was crucial for the achievement of these objectives. It could therefore not be suggested that the exclusion of the victims from the special dispensation process was rationally related to the achievement of the objectives of the special dispensation process.
The court made it clear that the judgment only applied to the group of prisoners who were going to be pardoned as part of a special process to deal with the “unfinished business” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What distinguished this category of prisoners from others not before the court was:
that the crimes in respect of which pardons are sought are alleged to have been committed with a political motive; the objective of these pardons is to promote national unity and reconciliation; and the crimes concerned were committed in a particular historical context. Different considerations may very well apply to other categories of applications for pardon. This judgment does not therefore decide the question whether victims of other categories of applications for pardon are entitled to be heard. That question is left open.
The judgment therefore makes it clear that it would not necessarily require the President to afford the victims of Eugene de Kock or Schabir Shaik a hearing before pardoning them. However, it confirms that the President does not have an unfettered discretion to pardon prisoners. The President is bound by the principle of legality, which is part of the rule of law, when exercising his power to pardon prisoners.
This means two things. First, the exercise of the power to grant pardons must be rationally related to the purpose sought to be achieved by the exercise of that power. In other words, there must be a rational link between the purpose that the President wishes to achieve by granting a specific pardon and the actual granting of that pardon. A President is therefore obliged to identify the purpose he wishes to achieve by granting a pardon and to make a case for why there is a rational relationship between that purpose and the granting of said pardon.
Thus, if the President were to pardon Shaik and De Kock, he will have to say why he did so. A court will then be allowed to determine whether the identified purpose is rationally related to the granting of the pardon.
If Shaik were to be pardoned for the purpose of advancing national reconciliation, say, it would be rather difficult to show that there was a rational connection between this pardon and the achievement of national reconciliation because Shaik was not convicted of a “political” crime. Shaik is an ordinary criminal who happened to have bribed the President, so pardoning him could not be said to have anything to do with the achievement of national reconciliation. Instead it would have everything to do with the granting of a political favour to a friend. As the Court explains:
The executive has a wide discretion in selecting the means to achieve its constitutionally permissible objectives. Courts may not interfere with the means selected simply because they do not like them, or because there are other more appropriate means that could have been selected. But, where the decision is challenged on the grounds of rationality, courts are obliged to examine the means selected to determine whether they are rationally related to the objective sought to be achieved.
What must be stressed is that the purpose of the enquiry is to determine not whether there are other means that could have been used, but whether the means selected are rationally related to the objective sought to be achieved. And if objectively speaking they are not, they fall short of the standard demanded by the Constitution.
This brings us to the second requirement for a valid granting of a pardon. The pardon must be granted for a constitutionally valid purpose. If the pardon was granted merely to do a friend a favour, or to prevent that friend from spilling the beans about your own involvement in criminality, or because that friend happened to have paid you bribes worth millions, it would not constitute a “constitutionally valid” purpose for pardoning the friend.
The judgment underlines the fact that the President does have a relatively wide – but not unfettered – discretion to pardon prisoners. But it also reminds us that the rule of law requires the President to act rationally when doing so. The President thus has a constitutional duty to state clearly what the purpose of the granting of the pardon might be. That purpose had to be a legitimate purpose. It could not have the purpose merely to advance the personal interests of the President himself or the party he happens to lead.
If De Kock and Shaik are pardoned, the presidency will therefore have to concoct a very good excuse – otherwise the decision could very well be set aside by a court.BACK TO TOP