Death Sentence in Uganda: the case of Susan Kigula

Death Sentence for Susan Kigula

In 2010, in Luzira Women’s Prison, I met with 30-year old Susan Kigula, probably Uganda’s best-known prisoner, for the first time. She was convicted of the murder of her husband on July 9, 2000. A vital piece of testimony came from her stepson, three years old at the time of the murder; 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.

Our meeting, however, was a real pleasure: Susan turned out to be a charismatic, charming and very intelligent woman.

In September 2002, Susan had been 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, Susan Kigula became the leading figure in the landmark case “Susan Kigula and 417 Others vs Attorney General.” The petitioners were all on death row and their case was an attempt to have capital punishment declared unconstitutional and abolished.

Supreme Court Ruling on 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, Susan and the others 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 State cannot torture condemned prisoners by keeping them on death row for years; therefore, if a death convict is not executed within three years, the sentence is automatically turned into life imprisonment.

The Ugandan Supreme Court also ruled against the mandatory character of the death sentence. The convicts on death row could go back to the High Court, have their cases reviewed and the judge take into consideration mitigating circumstances.


In November 2011, Susan had her retrial. In what Ugandan media described as an emotional High Court session, “dramatic scenes after court session ensued when Susan knelt down before (her dead husband’s grandmother. JB) Nakuya and her stepson (the crown witness. JB) and pleaded. But the old woman openly told her that her offence was too grave to be forgiven” (According to Uganda Radio Network).
Susan Kigula’s sentence was reduced to 20 years imprisonment.


When I revisited Susan (then 33) in Luzira Women’s Prison in 2013, she told me that she expected to leave prison in three years. She had started a distance law education – supposedly the only female prisoner in Uganda studying at university level.
On August 19, 2014, she graduated with a diploma in Law of the University of London. Susan became one of the first prisoners in the history of Uganda to receive a diploma in Common Law.

In a 2014 interview with Konnectafrika (, she was quoted as saying that “she decided to study law to acquire knowledge with which she can advocate for the rights of the less privileged having realised that the poor face ‘miscarriage of justice’ in the judicial system. She has big dreams of setting up a law firm upon discharge. ‘Many innocent people end up behind bars because they lack legal representation. I am determined to leave prison a learned woman so that I fight for the rights of the underprivileged.’”

According to Uganda’s New Vision Magazine, she has even been a source of inspiration to the commissioner general of prisons, Johnson Byabashaija, who explained as his goal for the Ugandan Prisons: “I want to transform prisons from punitive centres to correctional facilities.”


“Hi, Jan, this is Susan Kigula. I am out of prison and I decided to contact you.” This message was in my inbox, the morning of April 27, 2016.

In later emails, she wrote me: “I would Love to pursue my Masters degree in International Relations and Diplomacy, as soon as I graduate… I have not yet decided where I will do my Masters, but I would love to do it out of Uganda. I have a 17 year old daughter whom I left when she was one year. My Mother who raised her died in a motor accident two months before my release from prison. My Dad died 13 years back when I was still in jail…
I live with my sister and my daughter. Life is not easy, as I have to take care of my daughter, and yet am not working. But some friends have stood with me and I am grateful to them.”

Shortly after (May 18, 2016), she wrote: “Am happy to inform you that my sponsors are working on my scholarship at Masters level. Am very sure its going to be a success. I will be studying in the UK… They called me to fill in the application forms online. We are now in the process of applying. Am so excited!
I have been invited to speak in the abolition of the Death  Penalty Conference in Norway next month.

One July 3, 2016: “Dear, Jan am back from Europe. It was such a great experience. I loved the Conference, gave my testimony, and it was of great impact to the campaign.”

But then, on August 18, a big disappointment: “However, UK has a migration Law that for me to study there, I have to first finish four years!! I can visit UK for other issues, but anything to do with studies there anyone from prison has to first exhaust 4 years!
Even my sponsors did not know about it. They are now looking at other countries as an option. Can you help me and check for me your country’s immigration rules on ex-Prisoners studying there?
I have no problem with the Ugandan Laws and they ok me going and studying anywhere I want. I have not got a job, but in negotiations with my sponsors (who) would love me to work with them. Next week, we will have a final agreement signed.”

To be continued…

The other 417 on Death Row

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.

Africa and Capital Punishment

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.

For more on Uganda’s criminal justice, see my book Law&Order,

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