I’m back to photograph for my Law and Order project. On Friday February 15, I had my first day of photography at the Luzira Women’s Prison in Uganda, Africa. I was here already in 2010 as I began the first chapter of the project. Again, in only a matter of a few days, the permission papers were signed and ready, thanks to the JLOS people in Kampala. If only it was that easy in other countries.
This prison is very different from those I visited with my assistant (Jennifer King) in the United States, in Georgia recently; this one here is almost homey, in an African way.
After three years, I met again with Susan Kigula, probably Uganda’s best-known prisoner, who was convicted of the murder of her husband on July 9, 2000. A vital piece of testimony came from her five year old stepson; he said he had witnessed Susan, together with her house maid, Nansamba Patience, cutting his father’s throat with a brand new panga, a machete she had brought home the previous evening and hid under the bed.
In September 2002, Susan was sentenced to death by hanging, which is the standard method of execution in Uganda. At that time, the death sentence was mandatory, meaning that upon conviction for the offense of murder, death was the only sentence possible. After this conviction, Kigula became the leading figure in the landmark case “Susan Kigula and 416 Others vs Attorney General” (all on death row) in an attempt to have capital punishment declared unconstitutional and abolished.
No abolition of the death penalty
On the 21st of January 2009, the Supreme Court of Uganda passed the judgment concerning the imposition of the death penalty in Uganda. Susan and the others lost: the court refused 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.
However, the 418 also won in part. The judges made several rulings. With the first, they ruled that the death sentence should not be mandatory because that prevented courts from taking into consideration all specific circumstances of the defendant and of the crime. The sentencing would now be in the hands of the trial judge. Secondly, they ruled that the condemned person should not be kept on death row indefinitely and that a person should either be executed within three years or his sentence commuted to life. The Ugandan Supreme Court also said that that the convicts on death row could go back to the High Court and mitigate over the sentence. Since these rulings in 2009, a small number of prisoners have been released and approximately 180 death sentences have been commuted to life sentences. In November 2011, in what Ugandan media describe as an emotional High Court session, Susan Kigula’s sentence was reduced to 20 years imprisonment. According to Uganda Radio Network, “dramatic scenes after court session ensued when Kigula knelt down before Nakuya and her stepson and pleaded but the old woman openly told her that her offence was too grave to be forgiven. Nakuya demanded to know why Kigula with the help of her housemaid killed their (her. JB) son.”
The charismatic Susan (now 33) told me, however, that she expected to leave prison in three years. She has started to study while in prison. After finishing high school she is now supposedly the only female prisoner in Uganda studying at the university level; she is studying law with a main focus on human rights.
The Uganda people are now waiting for the authorities to speedily re-sentence all remaining persons in the same position as Susan Kigula, and to develop consistent sentencing guidelines for this purpose.
Part of the remaining cases are still awaiting new hearings that should lead to individualized sentences. However, there seem to be inconsistencies within the courts’ re-sentencing and there is an absence of clear sentencing guidelines, which should include requiring the medical and social history of the convicted. Another inconsistency is that some judges take time already served into consideration when re-sentencing while others do not.
Out of 54 countries in Africa, 16 have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 22 are abolitionist in practice. In 2010, Amnesty International recorded executions in four countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and death sentences imposed in 24, including Uganda. The last execution in Uganda was carried out in March 2003.