In 1999, Uganda hanged about a dozen civilians, including a famous activist of the Obote II government Musa Sebirumbi. Three years later, a court martial in the Karamoja region executed two soldiers for murdering a missionary — Declan O’Toole.
About 15 years earlier, in 1987, Kenya had executed its last death row convict, Hezekiah Ochuka for his role in the country’s 1982 coup attempt. Tanzania, too, had its last death row execution in 1994.
Several years later, Kenya and Uganda still have 509 death row inmates in custody — 300 in Kenyan prisons and 209 in Uganda. In fact, those in Kenya have even asked the president to sign their death warrants or change the sentence to life imprisonment.
What is the point in maintaining an inhumane sentence in the law books especially if the country has demonstrated reluctance to enforce it? That is the question the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), a leading human-rights organisation in Uganda, is asking authorities not just in Kampala but in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam case.
Uganda’s is an interesting one too. A 2005 Supreme Court ruling in the Susan Kigula case saved the death penalty for capital offences but gave the judges discretion. The ruling also commuted a lot of death sentences when it held that if the sentence was not carried out in a period of three years after completing the appeal process, it automatically commutes into a life sentence.
FHRI, the lead supporter of the Kigula case and a campaigner against the death penalty, held events in Kampala to commemorate the World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 12.
“As a country that seeks to deepen its democratic practices, it is important that it takes this decision seriously. Sometimes people commit these offences partly due to their backgrounds, injustices of society and the ineffectiveness of the justice system,” said Dr Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of FHRI.
Uganda has listed in its laws 28 offences that attract the death penalty.
Though the sentence remains in the law books, many countries have been reluctant to carry out executions. Activists say the death penalty has lost currency and should therefore be expunged from the law books.
The activists also point to mistakes that sometimes have led to wrongful convictions to justify their push against the penalty.
One of the speakers at the World Day Against the Death Penalty was Edward Edmary Mpagi, who spent 18 years on death row as a convict and two on remand before for the murder of a person who was later found to be alive. He was convicted with his brother.
“We were sentenced to death. There was no probe in our case and we were sent to Luzira Maximum Security Prison to face death innocently,” Mr Mpagi said.
Justine Nankya, a beneficiary of the Susan Kigula ruling, spoke of the long term impact of the death sentence even on those who succeed either on appeal or those who have their sentences commuted. Nankya was arrested in 1992, sentenced to death three years later in 1995 and became one of the petitioners in the Kigula case. She was released last year after her commuted time expired.
According to Commissioner of Prisons Robert Munanura, fondly referred to as Commissioner of Hope by the convicts, some of the inmates are innocent. However it is difficult for most of them to afford lawyers to prove their innocence.
He also pointed to disappearance of files in the court prosecution and court system as a key facilitator of convictions.