‘You can’t get someone out of the grave’

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 07 Apr 2019


SHE spent 16 years in prison for a crime she did not commit but Susan Kigula does not consider them as lost years.

Instead, she believes that those days in prison in Kampala, Uganda, have added more value to her life.

“I lost my freedom and I lost the time I would have had with my parents.

“I also lost time to raise my daughter but these are things you can’t bring back,” says Kigula. “My time in jail has been valuable.”

Once on death row for the purported murder of the father of her daughter, the 40-year-old is known all over the world for her role in a landmark court case in the country.

The 2011 case – Susan Kigula and 417 others vs Attorney General – became a landmark case as the Supreme Court of the country ruled that the death sentence should not be mandatory.

As a result, all those on death row in Uganda were exonerated and sent back to the courts for re-sentencing.

It all started when Kigula, who was then 21, and her partner were attacked in the wee hours of the night.

She was brought to the hospital unconscious, says Kigula, showing a big scar on her neck from the unknown assailants.

When she came to, she found out that her partner had been killed, but just days after that, the police detained her as a suspect in the murder, forcing her to leave her one-year-old daughter behind.

Her three-year-old stepson had claimed that he saw Kigula and her maid murdering her partner.

Kigula was tried in court for the murder and was eventually found guilty. She was given the mandatory death sentence for the crime.

On death row, Kigula found other women who were in the same predicament as her.

Kigula says that a majority had claimed that they did not commit the crimes they were being punished for, while those who did, claimed they were mostly self defence crimes against abusive husbands or rapists.

Many of her fellow inmates also could not understand their trials which were conducted in English, she adds.

“I realised that injustices have taken place, not only in my life but also in the lives of others, and that education is the best way to empower women.”

It was then that she decided to go back to school in prison and earn her secondary school certificate. She eventually passed the national exams, achieving one of the best results in the country.

After participating in a leadership programme by the African Prisons Project, she took the opportunity to further her studies in law, and was offered a scholarship from the University of London.

Kigula became the first female inmate to study and graduate with a Diploma in Common Law, followed by a law degree.

She says she was hesitant about taking up law at first, as the law had not been just to her.

“I was told that what I experienced was injustice, and by studying law, I could help myself and others in a similar condition.

“I decided to give it a try, and only then did I realise that it was what I needed to do,” she says.

From prison, Kigula led a constitutional petition in court, challenging the death penalty.

In 2009, the court did not abolish the death penalty but ruled that death sentences should not be mandatory in murder cases.

It also ruled for convicts not to be executed within three years, and their death sentences be automatically turned into life imprisonment.

The Supreme Court ruled that death row inmates could go back to the High Court for a retrial.

Kigula did not get a new trial but was re-sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In 2016, she was finally released from prison.

There were many times in prison when Kigula wanted to give up and was resigned to her fate, but a little voice always told her to keep on fighting.

“God kept me going and the fact that I was innocent kept me going. I knew I was not a criminal and refused to live like one,” she says.

Kigula admits that she was not concerned about the death penalty before, but that all changed after her own experience on death row.

As she puts it, even judges are human beings who can make errors and send innocent people to the gallows.

Kigula also believes that you cannot eliminate mistakes from human nature but their lives can be transformed for the better.

Crucially, everyone deserves a second chance, she says.

“You can get someone out of the prison, but you can’t get someone out of the grave.”

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