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Monday, 27 October 2014

Thou shall not kill: The sad story of the hangman of Luzira Prisons

I am the hangman of Luzira Prisons

Publish Date: Oct 21, 2014
I am the hangman of Luzira Prisons
Prisoners in the condemned section. Though no prisoner has been hanged since 2009, Uganda upholds the death penalty. PHOTO/Petride Mudoola
 
To hear that someone has been sentenced to death is disturbing, so naturally one wonders what goes on in the mind of the person who actually executes the death sentence.
 
To answer this question, I set out to find the hangman. After weeks of making contact through a go between, I finally convinced him to meet me. 
 
He does not want his identity disclosed, so we shall call him Michael.
 
Tall, dark-skinned and bearded, Michael’s physique is imposing, but as you interact with him, he strikes you as a regular gentleman who would never kill anyone. 
 
This is probably why most people who know him have no idea what he does for a living.
 
“People may have a negative attitude if they get to know what I do. Nobody wants to be friends with a hangman,” he says.
 
But in the gallows, the 55-yearold executes his duties with utmost precision. 
 
With over 100 executions in his career, the 55-year-old says he has mastered the art of killing without causing pain. 
 
He trained in China.
 
“A person I hang never kicks around while dying. He dies immediately with almost no discomfort. The art lies in how you tie the knot that crushes the neck.
 
Not everybody can do that,” he explains.
 
He confesses that ending someone’s life is not a laughing matter. His most traumatizing execution was when he hanged two brothers who were convicted of murder.
 
“It takes exceptional courage to walk an inmate to the death chambers. Once, an aggressive inmate hit me hard. If it were not for the cuffs placed on his hands and legs, he would have killed me,” he recalls.

When it is time
 
Often, the executioner will know about the task to be performed a month in advance. Before explaining the procedure, Michael warned me that what I was about to hear might be disturbing, but I insisted on hearing it all the same.
 
He began by explaining that normally, the death row inmate will know about his fate when he is handcuffed and taken out of his cell with full escort to meet the Officer in Charge (OC).
 
The family will have been invited to meet him and pray with him for the last time. This meeting takes place in the OC’s office. 
 
The convict is given an opportunity to choose his last meal, which is then prepared and served to him before execution.
 
Professional
 
The execution team then heads to the death chambers. They spend some time getting the facilities ready because there is no room for error.
 
According to Micheal, the hanging is carried out when all parties that include the OC of the condemned section, the clergy and the prisons director of medical services are contented with the inmate’s health on the appointed day.
 
He says prior to execution, the prisoner’s neck and body measurements are taken because the ropes need to be of the right strength and the drop needs to be worked out in relation to the individual’s weight and height.
 
In the death chamber, the prisoner may stand or be seated on a death chair depending on whether he is cooperative or aggressive. 
 
The legs and hands are tied and a black hood placed over the head so that the prisoner does not see the execution team.
 
“A noose is then placed around his neck, after which, upon a prisons warder’s command, the hangman presses a button and a machine pulls the ropes to squeeze the prisoner’s neck.”
 
“The alternative is to release the prisoner through a hole so that his own weight pulls the rope and squeezes the neck. 
 
Either way, death is either brought about by damage to the spinal cord or by suffocation caused by constriction of the trachea,” he explains.
 
He adds that after the prisoner’s body drops, the officers, priests and medical personnel proceed to the bottom of the gallows to certify the death.
 
When there are mistakes Micheal says in the event that the prisoner is not dead, they are hit hard at the back of the head with a hammer or a crow-bar. 
 
The body is then quickly placed in a coffin, sprayed with acid and buried in an unmarked grave within the prison cemetery.
 
It is this process that human rights activists are opposed to. 
 
For the last 12 years, on October 10 of every year, they have commemorated World Day Against the Death Penalty. 
As a result of the campaign, 139 countries, including 13 in Africa, have abolished the death penalty.
 
The death sentence in Uganda Uganda still retains the death penalty although no execution has been carried out since 1999, when Haji Mustapha Sebirumbi was sent to the gallows. 
 
For an execution to be carried out, the President has to sign a warrant first.
 
Presently, Uganda’s prisons accommodate 393 inmates on death row. 
Of these, 357 are male while 36 are female.
 
Commissioner General’s stand on the death penalty
 
Dr. Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons, has frequently expressed his stand against the death sentence because he is of the view that it is cruel, inhuman and degrading.
 
“Death is something which every one of us will meet so by executing a person, you will have not punished them,” Byabashaija argues.
 
He adds that the main objective of Uganda Prison Services is to correct offenders, yet execution does not correct lawbreakers. 
 
“And it has not been proved that the death penalty deters people from continuing to commit those crimes,” he says.
 
He, however, says since the law still provides for the death penalty, and judges have continued to sentence people to death. 
 
The prisons authorities would have no choice but to hang a prisoner if an order comes through. 
 
The hanging facilities are still in good working condition. The executioner and his two assistants are still on the pay roll.
 
“We perform the duty as directed by our superiors,” Byabashaija says.
 
Recalling Saddam Hussein, Byabashaija says some inmates on death row at Luzira spent up to three days without eating when they watched the former Iraqi leader’s execution on television.
 
Asked about the criteria followed while recruiting hangmen, Byabashaija says Uganda Prison Services advertises for the posts.
 
The last recruitment was in the late 1980s.
 
 Edward Mpagi was on death row for 18 years for a crime he did not commit. Mpagi is a good example of how
wrong the death penalty can be
 
Warder’s experience
 
A warder who was once in charge of the condemned section, says he watched one prisoner being executed in Luzira and could not sleep for two days. 
 
He says over 20 years, he still gets nightmares.
 
“The images of that execution haunt me to date and I am now convinced that they shall haunt me
 

Innocent
 
The warder says he felt bad every time an inmate was executed. Yet, some prisoners are sentenced to death for no crime. 
 
A case in point is Edward Mpagi, 60, who was declared guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1982, then the person he supposedly killed reappeared years later.
 
He spent 18 years on death row before he was released, by which time his property had been snatched by his enemies. 
 
During this period, 52 of his wardmates were executed, often in batches of 10.
 
Each time, the prisoners would cry as they were being taken out. Amid sobs, some would say “I am going. I am going to meet my Lord.”
 
Then some of their remaining colleagues would sob. After being walked out of the ward, some of the prisoners would sing religious songs as they were being led to the gallows.
 
The death chamber was above the ward, so the remaining prisoners would hear the sound of their colleagues’ bodies with a thud during execution. 
 
Finally, they would hear the sound of nails being knocked into coffins.
 
They would then go through days of grief, not knowing who among them would be next.
 

In mates on death row speak out 
 
Amos Olweny has been in the condemned section of Luzira’s Maximum Security prison for 28 years. 
 
“I and my fellow death row inmates live in constant fear of imminent execution,” he says.
 
Olweny says those on death row are kept separated from other inmates, which adds to their anxiety.
 
“The condemn section is an extremely intimidating structure.
 
The walls are high and all around us. They are painted a dull, harsh white colour. 
 
The living conditions are extremely depressing. The lights in the cells are left on throughout the night, making it difficult for us to sleep properly. 
 
With the overcrowded cells, there is barely enough room to move a round,” he says.
 
“As death row inmates, we do not know when they are coming for us. 
The practice of being left in suspense adds to our constant fear, mental anguish and torture. 
 
For that reason the prisoner is kept in a dehumanising environment from the moment he enters the cells,” Olweny explains.
 

Why I am for the death penalty

Samuel Musimenta, child rights activist
 
The death penalty should be retained because it will deter the would be perpetrators of crimes related to murder. Let it be an eye for an eye. 
 
For example, why should a person who admits to killing a child for ritual sacrifice live? 
Such people should not even be kept in prison, they should be executed the day court finds them guilty.
 
 
 Kigula being congratulated by the principle judge Yorokamu Bamwine and prison’s boss Byabashaijja on her graduation day
 
Babra Nassimbwa a paediatric surgeon
 
The death penalty should be retained so that serial killers can face justice. 
 
Given the nature of the crimes, they do not deserve to live. In fact, tax payers’ money should not be wasted on feeding prisoners, especially those sentenced to death because they do not add any value to our economy.
 
 
Why I am not for the death penalty
 
Francis Suubi the executive director Wells of Hope Ministries
 
The death sentence should be abolished because many children have ended up on the streets after the bread winner is sentenced to death. 
 
When a parent is condemned to death, his children suffer for a crime they did not commit. 
 
Prisoners’ children are rotting in villages and majority of them are not able to go to school.
 
Martha Ngabirano, a teacher
 
The death penalty should be removed. 
 
Even if the murderers acted against the law, no one has a right to terminate another person’s life. 
 
Vengeance should not be ours. Death row inmates should be given a second chance in life because people are taken to prison to reform. How then will an executed person reform if all you want to do is kill them? What is the point of prison being a correctional institution?
 
 
Susan Kigula’s remarkable story
 
On July 9, 2009, Susan Kigula was arrested and remanded to Luzira Prison for killing her husband David Sseremba.  
 
In September 2002, court found her guilty of the offence and sentenced her to death by hanging.
 
A young woman, who had a whole life ahead of her, dreams unaccomplished, promises waiting to be fulfilled was set to die.
 
“Hanging a person is not a deterrent since everyone deserves a second chance to live. That is why I petitioned against the death penalty,” says Kigula.
 
This move made Susan the leading figure in the landmark case, Susan Kigula and 417 death row inmates’ vs. Attorney General, in an attempt to have capital punishment declared unconstitutional and abolished in Uganda.
 
On January 21, 2009, the Supreme Court of Uganda reached a decision, Susan and the others lost: the court saw no basis to outlaw the death penalty. 
 
In addition, it ruled that no sufficient evidence was brought to show that being hanged caused more pain and suffering to the person being executed than any other manner of execution.
 
What could be more disappointing and troubling for anyone? Although Susan’s petition was refused, with it sprung several court rulings which would eventually become precedents in the criminal laws of Uganda.
 
First, the court ruled that the death sentence should no longer be mandatory because it would only tie the hands of the court and prevent it from taking into consideration the specific circumstances of each case.
 
It also ruled that the State cannot torture condemned prisoners by keeping them on death row for years; therefore, where a death penalty cannot be executed within three years, it must be commuted to life imprisonment.
 
Thus, Kigula, who had spent nine years in prison, escaped the hangman’s noose and started a new life. 
 
In November 2011, in a remarkable High Court session, Susan Kigula’s sentence was reduced to 20 years.
 
Today, Kigula holds a diploma in legal studies, which she did through the prisons education system. She now runs a legal clinic for other inmates.
 
Since these court rulings in 2009, a number of prisoners have been released and approximately 180 death sentences have been converted to life sentences.