Presidents in Malawi stopped signing death warrants in 1992, but courts still convicts to death sentence to punish offenders and deter would-be murderers.
But for Edwin Uladi, from Machinga District, mentions of ‘death sentence’ easily break his heart.
“It is easy to talk about it, but when you are the one sentenced to death, you see death in your face whether you are innocent or guilty,” he says.
In 1992, the court sentenced Uladi to death for murder and he spent 25 years at Zomba Central Prison waiting for the day his life would be terminated by a State-sponsored hangman. However, the unexpected happened in 2017 when he was immediately released after his sentence was reduced to 22 years imprisonment.
Uladi benefitted from the British-funded retrials for murder convicts on death row.
However, other prisoners may not be so lucky as the Kafantayeni Resentencing Project has phased out.
When Malawi commemorated the World Day against Death Penalty at Zomba Central Prison last October, Uladi was given the microphone to share his experiences.
And he opened up: “Death row is not a happy place as there is a consistent sad and hopeless atmosphere in the section for condemned men.
“When I was here at Zomba Central Prison, I could see the gallows through the bars of the cell window. The guards had seen men being hanged in the yard and each day I woke up thinking I could be next.”
The ex-convict has since become a church elder and preacher. He also helps in settling disputes in his village and beyond.
“I tell people to resolve their differences without violence. The years I spent behind bars taught me a lot, mostly to stay out of crime. If I were executed, I would not be doing the things I am doing,” he says.
During his time, there were 19 inmates on death row and “their faces could tell that they had already given up life”.
Their only hope was to have their cases retried.
One of them, Phinza Kuchande, reminisced about the suspenseful wait for the outcome of the retrial, saying some remain frustrated.
“We have become a condemned people because there is no justice in this country. We have gone years for our cases to be retried. Our only hope is the [prison] officers here who keep on telling us not to lose hope, saying the President might intervene,” he says.
A feeling is growing that death penalty does not serve justice, but constitutes a human right violation.
Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) vice-chairperson Gift Trapence says everyone has the right to life despite the crimes committed.
“All executions violate the right to life. Death penalty is inhuman; it is a gross affront to human dignity and should not be tolerated. There is no human way to kill,” he says.
Some lawyers have joined the battle against death penalty to ease the agony intimates on death row face.
Alexious Kamangila has carried out a number of mass awareness activities and represented people with homicide cases for free. Last year, he represented inmates at Nsanje Prison pro bono.
He warns: “Death penalty should be abolished because it is of no benefit to society and causes great harm. Countless studies have shown that it does not deter criminals or reduce violent crimes. When we are confronted with a terrible act of violence, it is tempting to revenge, but in practice, responding with more violence hurts everybody.”
Kamangila warns that if nothing happens to abolish the death penalty, innocent people may be executed.
He adds: “Over the past five years, about 150 prisoners were wrongly sentenced to death. However, they were resentenced and released. Many were victims themselves— of tragic accidents, mistaken identity or mental illness. As long as Malawi keeps the death penalty, there is a possibility innocent people will be wrongly convicted and sent to the gallows.”
But government maintains death penalty on its books even though no president has signed a death warrant since the restoration of democracy in 1993.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Bright Msaka says government will consider changing the law when there is a public outcry to abolish it.
He says: “The Constitution requires that we make laws in keeping with the wishes of the people.
“When the country’s Constitution was being reviewed, there was a debate as to whether the death penalty should be abolished or not. It was agreed to retain it. So it is not what government wants, but what the people want.”
Msaka, however, alluded to the silent moratorium, saying: “Since the downfall of the one-party system, no one has been executed.”
He states that there is need to gauge peoples’ aspirations as their will may have evolved since the current Constitution was adopted 25 years ago.
“I believe that you, the media, are in a better place to initiate a debate on death penalty. As government, we can start from there,” he says.
Section 16 of the Constitution says every person has a right to life. In 1993, Malawi signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Three years later, it ratified the first optional protocol to the ICCPR in 1996 allowing for the right of individual petition to the UN Human Rights Committee—a step away from abolishment of the death sentence.
However, courts continue to sentence people to death.
A number of African countries have abolished the death penalty. They include Ivory Coast, Senegal, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Gabon, Madagascar, Benin and Guinea.