Tanzania’s president on Wednesday commuted the sentences of 256 convicts on death row, marking a first for a country that has not executed anyone in nearly three decades.

President John Magufuli’s decision, announced on Tanzania’s Independence Day, gives fresh impetus to human rights campaigners who have been calling for abolition of the death penalty in the country.

“Today is our Independence Day, [and] I was supposed to be authorizing the deaths of 256 convicts. I did not execute a single one. I commute their sentences to life imprisonment,” Magufuli said during an oath-taking ceremony for new Cabinet members.

“The law say I must hang all 256 of them. [But] Who will be more sinful – those convicted of killing one, two, or three people, or me, who is required to kill 256?”

Rights groups have hailed the move as a significant milestone, saying that keeping prisoners on death row indefinitely amounted to psychological torture.

According to the Home Ministry’s records, the death row inmates are spread across many of Tanzania’s notorious jails, living in untold agony and despair.

Prison officials quoted in local media reports say protracted delays in executions have resulted in congestion in jails, since death row inmates have to be kept apart from other prisoners.

The last execution in the East African country was approved by former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi in 1994.​​​

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