October 10, 2016, marks the 10th World Day Against the Death Penalty. African Prisons Project are proud to have seen some of our law students at the forefront of fighting against the death penalty in both Kenya and Uganda from death row itself. There are 104 countries across the world who have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, however, Kenya and Uganda retain the death penalty as a mandatory sentence for crimes including murder, treason and robbery with violence. Although neither country has performed an execution in the past ten years, the large number of convicts currently sentenced to death in Kenya and Uganda presents one of the most significant obstacles to the protection of human rights and the guarantee of a humane criminal justice system. APP students have used the law to challenge these inhumane practices and not only have they successfully won their own freedom, they have also substantially weakened the death penalty in their respective countries. Here we share the stories of three changemakers who have made a significant impact in changing the law surrounding the mandatory death penalty.
This year we saw Susan Kigula win her freedom having been serving a death sentence at Luzira Prison in Uganda. Susan entered Luzira Women’s Prison 16 years ago at the age of 21 having been convicted of murder. Through our Leadership Programme, Susan was given the opportunity to study law, providing her with an understanding of the legal system and equipping her with the tools to fight her case in court. Susan was initially hesitant to study, however, with some encouragement she has since received her Diploma in Common Law and has recently completed her LLB law degree through the University of London’s distance learning programme. Prior to any formal studies, Susan and her fellow death row peers launched a constitutional challenge of the mandatory death sentence in Uganda. This challenge led to the Ugandan Supreme Court ruling that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. Susan’s death sentence was reduced to a custodial sentence of 20 years, from which she was liberated earlier this year. The success of Susan’s case continues to inspire other APP students and provides hope for prisoners on death row.
Benjamin Kamugisha was arrested and remanded for two years before being sentenced to death in 2003 at the age of 18. Benjamin refused to let his early imprisonment define him. He and a group of death row prisoners challenged the legality of the death penalty in Uganda in 2009, and they were permitted to proceed in mitigation hearings to reduce their sentences. He received his Diploma in Common Law in 2014 and is currently finishing up his second year in the LLB program with the University of London. In late March 2016, Benjamin aided his state-appointed lawyer in his mitigation hearing and successfully had his death sentence reduced to a custodial sentence of 18 years. Since he had already served 15 years Benjamin was released immediately and will spend his 31st birthday as a free man, his first adult birthday spent outside of a prison.
In Kenya, Wilson Kinyua, an APP student and death row inmate, led the most successful and prominent constitutional challenge of the death penalty in 2016. Wilson was arrested for robbery with violence in 1998 and sentenced to death in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. He has since received a Diploma in Common Law and is in his second year of the LLB program with the University of London. Not only is Wilson studying law, but he is actively changing the law through a landmark petition. On February 24, 2016, Wilson and other death row inmates challenged the mandatory death penalty in Kenya, citing the example of their fellow APP student and exoneree Susan Kigula along with a strong case arguing that such a sentence was a fundamental breach of their right to life. In the absence of a lawyer, Wilson personally presented his case to the Milimani Court in Nairobi. On September 15, 2016, the Kenyan High Court ruled that mitigating factors and other pre-sentencing requirements would have to be considered by the courts before automatically applying the death sentence, a triumphant victory for Wilson and his fellow inmates. Although the Kenyan High Court did not rule to indiscriminately abolish the death penalty, Wilson will be given the opportunity to conduct a mitigation hearing similar to those of Susan and Benjamin in the hope of being liberated from his sentence to death. The case has come up against many obstacles and setbacks along the way, most recently with state appealing the High Court ruling. However, Wilson has shown courage and perseverance throughout the case and we continue to support him as the case continues.
Marking the occasion
Today, African Prisons Project, along with the International Commission of Jurist and Strathmore University will be raising awareness for the abolition of the death penalty. We want to see an end to the death penalty and we believe that this day is fast approaching for Kenya and Uganda. We are proud to know that our students are leading their communities on the path to justice as we see them using the law in an extraordinary way in order to change the world as they know it.