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Zimbabwe's Mugabe empties food-starved female prisons under amnesty

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace greet supporters of his ZANU (PF) party during the "One Million Man March", a show of support of Mugabe's rule in Harare, Zimbabwe, May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has granted amnesty to all female prisoners except those on death row or serving life sentences, as prisons struggle to feed inmates due to lack of funding from the government.

Five prisoners died in March 2015 after being shot by police in a protest over food shortages, which turned violent as some of them attempted to break out of jail.

Mugabe announced the pardon through a government notice on Monday, without stating a reason for the move, and the release of prisoners started on Wednesday.

Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services spokeswoman Priscilla Mthembo said on Thursday there were 580 female inmates across the country’s 46 prisons, and those eligible would be set free. At the country’s top security jail in Harare, two female prisoners serving life sentences remained after the amnesty, while vetting was ongoing at other prisons.

In all, Mthembo said more than 2,000 prisoners would benefit from Mugabe’s pardon. These included all juveniles, irrespective of their crimes, as well as some men not serving time for serious crimes like murder, armed robbery, treason, rape or carjacking.

Zimbabwe’s prisons hold 20,000 inmates, more than their capacity of 17,000, causing congestion and shortages of everything from food to uniforms.

Under the constitution of the Southern African nation, Mugabe, who routinely pardons prisoners, is required to consult his cabinet on all amnesties.

Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Mark Trevelyan