Death Penalty in Tanzania: The Story of Pardoned Death Row Inmates
October 10 is the World Day against the death penalty. In this day the world comes together to call for the abolition of this barbaric and inhuman punishment. As a human rights organization in Tanzania and an active member of the World Coalition against Death Penalty; Legal and Human Rights Centre has been championing the protection of the right to life by campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.
To celebrate the day, Legal and Human Rights Centre went to Njombe Region to cover unpopular story behind five pardoned inmates who had been behind bars for almost 43 years. A total of five old men were convicted for the murder of an Indian businessman at Njombe back in 1974. Upon conviction, they were sentenced to death but later they appealed and the penalty was reduced to life imprisonment before they were released on December 2017.
In Njombe, LHRC interviewed three out of five released inmates including Mzee Rafael Mlyuka, Mzee Yohana Chengula and Mzee Aloyce Mwalongo. During the interviews, the pardoned old men who had spent most of their lives in prison denied having been committed the crime they had been charged with claiming that poor court representation had made it possible for them to be charged with a fabricated murder case.
“I felt very bad to be sentenced to death knowing that I did not commit the crime, It was very painful, very painful” – Mzee Yohana Chengula told LHRC.
“I couldn’t help it. If I had been hanged to death, the blame could be to the government because it is the government that convicted and sentenced me to death while I was innocent” – insisted Mzee Mlyuka.
One of the key question asked by LHRC was a question about the difference between life in the death row and life during life imprisonment. The pardoned inmates emotionally shared their experience;
“The truth is, life in the death row is terrifying, I became hypertensive because of thinking what is next for me. What will happen to me!” – said Mzee Mlyuka
Mzee Aloyce, unlike fellow inmates, was sentenced 10 years in prison and later he joined the death row after his punishment was changed to death penalty five years later. Here is what he had to say when asked to share his experience.
“I remember in 1980 when I was taken to Isanga prison in Dodoma I found there were so many death row inmates. I was so afraid and terrified to learn that everyone was in blue cloths and no one in a different colour… and the surrounding was very quiet … I asked some questions like what that building is for and I got a reply that is where people are hung… my terror intensified. Even when you try to sleep the fear mounts". - said Mzee Aloyce
Mzee Aloyce went on to explain the life after commutation from death row to death sentence;
“After commutation, I felt recovered from fear of death, because with life sentence it is easier to even meet with people who want to see you and you are a bit free to move around the prison surroundings contrary to the death row. When your sentence is reduced from the death penalty to life imprisonment, you sometimes don’t believe that things have changed, you might sleep and wake up in shock asking yourself are you really free from death or it is just a dream” – insisted Mzee Aloyce.
In response to the same question Mzee Chengula explained the feeling of improvement after they were commuted from death row;
“At least I felt a little bit recovered when the then President, the late Mwl. Nyerere signed for commutation of our punishment to life imprisonment, I felt recovered from the fear of death and thanked God .. Hoping that maybe one day he (God) will open another door to liberty…” – said Mzee Chengula.
On December 9, 2017, amid commemoration of ‘Uhuru’ day, President John Pombe Magufuli declared amnesty to a number of prisoners including 61 death row inmates. Mzee Mlyuka, Mzee Aloyce and Mzee Chengula were part of the list and here is what they felt when received news on their release;
"I was very relieved and happy to learn that I was among those pardoned by President Magufuli on December 9, 2017. Everyone at prison’s mess cheered me and said mzee you are finally free, you are free now and they pampered me up to the office of the prison officer in charge ready for departure". - said Mzee Aloyce.
Mzee Mlyuka expressed her gratitude to President Magufuli for the pardon;
“I would like to thank President Magufuli sincerely. I can’t thank him enough .., you know Magufuli, I salute him, I respect Magufuli,... Without Magufuli my life would have ended up in prison, and if I died in prison, the government would remain a scapegoat because other people (who were involved in my imprisonment) would have been judged by God” – said Mzee Mlyuka.
The most anticipated part by LHRC was what would those released inmates say about the death penalty after 43 years behind bars. Guess what was their response when probed about their take on the death penalty;
“I am personally against the death penalty given the fact that someone innocent can be sentenced to death without a justifiable cause. I am one of those who would have died if the sentence was executed”. That would have been unfair punishment”. – said Mzee Aloyce
Mzee Mlyuka was also in agreement with colleagues on the abolition of the sentence;
“I wish Death Penalty is abolished because there are so many innocent people like me who would have been wrongly punished if the sentence has to executed” – insisted Mzee Mlyuka.
Mzee Chengula argued the government to abolish the death sentence as he reiterated that death sentence can claim the lives of innocent people like him;
“I humbly urge the government to abolish the death penalty because I would have unfairly lost my life despite the truth that I neither killed nor got involved in the murder. I believe that there are many innocent people who are being sentenced to death”. - commented Mzee Chengula.
This year’s theme on World Day against the Death Penalty is children: unseen victims of the death penalty. The theme focuses on the difficulties that children go through when their parents or guardians face the death sentence. LHRC team talked to family members of the pardoned prisoners and here is what they had to say;
“It was very hard to get used to the situation because some children used to bully me and I felt bad because they kept reminding me that my father had been imprisoned and sentenced to death because of murder. Sometimes you feel isolated by society and I think to some extent it affected my academic performance”. – said Daudi Mlyuka, Mzee Mlyuka’s son.
Casto Mwalongo, a son to Mzee Aloyce who was 2 years old when his father (Mzee Aloyce) was convicted told LHRC how their life became miserable after conviction;
“Some of the challenges that faced me include lack of necessary care from guardians, but I also struggled to go to school which made me drop up in form three because I could not afford the education costs by that time". - explained Casto.
The last respondent was a daughter to Mzee Mlyuka, Rosemary Mlyuka who explained how she was made to act as a family guardian when her mother was following on the case;
“I was in standard seven when the case was at the court in Iringa and I was told to come back to Njombe to take care of the house and my little brothers and sisters. Later on, my mother came back with the bad news that my father was sentenced to death. Back then, I could not understand what happened until when I was in Songea for my secondary school education when someone hinted me about my father being unfairly convicted and sentenced”. - said Rosemary.
Despite mixed feelings over the abolition of the death sentence, LHRC keeps campaigning for the abolition of the penalty given that the death sentence is barbaric and inhuman denying the person's basic right to life.
Watch the full documentary here
What is your opinion on the death penalty after following up this story?