Susan Kigula: How a woman on death row changed the Ugandan legal system


Susan Kigula in October 2018, in Jan Banning’s studio in Utrecht, Netherlands.

The European Day against the death sentence takes place on October 10th. On that day in 2018, Susan Kigula from Uganda, who was sentenced to death in 2002, came to Utrecht in order to hold a lecture about and against the death penalty. Artist and photographer Jan Banning has befriended her, and tells about how the death sentence she received has influenced her life.

It’s July 9th, 2000, in the middle of the night. According to 21-year-old shopkeeper Susan’s statement, she woke up from a sudden blow to the neck and found she was bleeding heavily from a deep cut. Next to her, she found her husband, Constantino Sseremba, coughing up blood and lethally injured. Their housekeeper, Patience, later testified that she had seen two men running out of the flat.

Three days later, Susan and Patience were arrested. Herbert, Constantino’s son from an earlier relationship, had given an daring statement in which he accused them of murdering his father. Susan herself claims that her in-laws, with whom she had a troublesome relationship, played a dark part in all of this.
The key witness was three years old at the time of the murder. Two years later, in a courtroom in Ugandan capital Kampala, the now five year old toddler stated that his stepmother, Susan, had cut her husband’s throat with a machete while their housekeeper, Patience, held his legs.

Ze was tried – without a lawyer: she couldn’t afford one. Murder. That was what the judge, on September 11, 2002, found her guilty of. In Uganda, murderers were automatically sentenced to death, and as such the judge had no choice but to sentence her to the country’s standard execution method: the gallows.


Luzira Women’s Prison, 2013. (c) Jan Banning

International implications

I came upon Susan Kigula’s story in 2010, when I was preparing my first trip to Uganda for my Law&Order project, a photographic study of criminal law in four different countries.
Upon my arrival in Kampala, I requested the bulky collection of procedural documents, expecting they would conform my impression of lousy criminal justice. However, once I went through all the files, I found myself – much to my own surprise – seriously doubting: seeing the evidence that was presented in the courtroom, I might have judged her as guilty myself. At the same time, it was of course strange that there was no mention of a possible motive. I also did not find any evidence that pointed towards marital struggles.

Later, it became clear that simply no exculpatory evidence had been presented, which was logical seeing that Susan had no lawyer. However, I was unaware of this when reading the files for the first time.
To the present day, Susan has always passionately claimed to be innocent – and I, too, am convinced of this by now.


Susan Kigula in Luzira Women’s Prison in 2010. (c) Jan Banning

In the meantime, Susan had become Uganda’s most famous prisoner after being the face of a famous court case: Susan Kigula and 417 others against the State of Uganda. In this case she, supported by the Death Penalty Project, demanded a few radical amendments of the law, most of all abolition of the death penalty.
On the 21th of January, 2009, the Supreme Court made its decision public: the death sentence would not be abolished. However, the Court also ruled that keeping prisoners that were sentenced to death on Death Row for years and years – after all, the last time someone was actually executed in Uganda was in March of the year 2003 – was a manner of torture: from then on, a death sentence would automatically be converted to a life sentence after three years on death row. On top of this, the death sentence was no longer mandatory when someone was found guilty of murder.

Thanks to Susan’s initiative, the hundreds of court cases of all prisoners with a death sentence now had to be reevaluated: judges were able to, retroactively, take mitigating circumstances into account. Since then, almost all of these prisoners have been released, after their death sentences were converted to life sentences (which, in Uganda, until recently, meant: 20 years).
The case had international implications: it played an important part in the abolishing of the mandatory death sentence for murder in the neighbouring country, Kenia.


Susan Kigula in Luzira Women’s Prison in 2013. (c) Jan Banning

Studying under a tree
Susan Kigula was imprisoned in the women’s section of Luzira Prison, on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
After reading all those procedural documents, I wanted to meet her in the flesh. I was surprised by how easy it was to get permission. Susan turned out to be a bright, intelligent and warm woman, and we immediately felt connected to one another.

In 2008, after Susan had heard that secondary education was available in the men’s section of Luzira Prison, she managed to get permission to establish her own school in the women’s prison. The open-minded head of the Ugandan prison system, Johnson Byabashaija, supported her: “I want to transform our prisons from penal institutions to corrective institutions,” he said.

She received course books from family members and from the men’s prison, and with four others she started studying under a tree. One year later, all five students passed the final exams of secondary school, after which they continued to teach others. Susan’s exam results were among the best in the entire country. The fact that one of Uganda’s top students was a woman behind bars created considerable media attention.
That attracted the attention of a British lawyer, Alexander McLean, who had committed himself to improve conditions in Ugandan prisons. He convinced Susan to start studying law and he made it possible for her to start a correspondence study at the University of London in 2011. She was the only female prisoner in Uganda that participated in academic education, and soon found herself aiding other prisoners – as well as guards – with legal advice.


English lessons in Luzira Women’s Prison, 2013. (c) Jan Banning

On November 11, 2011, a few months before we would meet for the first time, Susan Kigula found herself in front of a judge once again. Her sentence was now reduced to twenty years. Her housekeeper, Patience, got sixteen years.
When I returned to the women’s prison in 2013, I found Susan with a stack of books at a table in a quiet corner. Her mood was great: her studies were going well, and in three years she expected to be released early thanks to her good behaviour. After that, she wanted to commit herself to improving human rights: ‘A lot of people end up in prison because they cannot pay a lawyer. I want to come out of here like an educated woman, so I will be able to fight for the rights of the underprivileged.’
On photo’s in the media can be seen that, for an interim undergraduate graduation ceremony, the prison organized a party – giant cake included – for her and two male prisoners. The three cut the cake together with beaming commissioner of prisons, Johnson Byabashija.

Undergraduate degree
On April 27, 2016, early in the morning, I found an email in my inbox: ” Hi, Jan, this is Susan Kigula. I am out of prison and I decided to contact you.”

On a rainy morning in January, after sixteen years in prison, a female guard had escorted her to the exit, sheltering her from the rain with an umbrella. A few months later she returned to Luzira prison – but only in order to receive her undergraduate degree, since one of her two fellow students was still in prison.
As part of the festivities, they organized a TEDx event with international speakers, and a big reception in Kampala’s Sheraton hotel.

Susan now lives with her sister and her own and Constantino’s daughter, Leticia, who was raised by her parents. She works for the African Prisons Project, founded by McLean. She gives passionate lectures about hope and individual growth, as well as providing legal advice to prisoners. She is also working on the world’s first solicitor’s office that is ran entirely from behind bars, which will enable imprisoned lawyers to help poverty-stricken fellow prisoners with legal aid. And she has set up the organisation Sunny African Children that supports children of prisoners, street children and orphans in Uganda.

Now 38 years old, the former shopkeeper has travelled to, amongst others, Italy, Norway, Gambia Romania, the Netherlands, Germany etcetera since her release, where she held lectures at international conferences about the death penalty. In Paris, she met a former French minister of Foreign Affairs and in Sweden she held a lecture on the fate of prisoner’s children. A striking contribution was the ‘Citizen Hero’ rap that the controversial musical news programme, Newz Beat – popular amongst youngsters – presented on Ugandan television in her honour.

On October 13, 2018, Susan Kigula gave a lecture in Zephyr, (Reiss-Engelhorn- Museen), Mannheim, where Jan Banning’s Law&Order was exhibited.

Some links, for more:
How I Made It Through Death Row | Susan Kigula | TEDxLuziraPrison
Aljazeera, Uganda’s Lady Justice | Witness
NTVUganda, Susan Kigula on Life After Prison
ECPM (Ensemble contre la peine de mort), 3 questions to Susan Kigula, former death row prisoner
Journeyman Pictures, Singing For Their Lives On Uganda’s Death Row
BBC, Susan Kigula: The woman who freed herself and hundreds from death row
BBC, What Susan Did on Death Row
Stern, Susan Kigula studierte Jura im Knast von Kampala – und rettete hunderte Gefangene vor dem Galgen
NewzBeat (Ugandan tv): The woman who freed herself and hundreds from death row (rap!)

Susan’s organisation to support children of inmates

This article was written in Dutch for the monthly Vrij Nederland.