Susan Kigula death row Uganda

From Uganda’s Death Row to Human Rights Activism

// Interview: Susan Kigula

Human rights activist, Uganda


In September 2002, Susan Kigula had been sentenced to death by hanging, which is the standard method of execution in her country, Uganda. At that time, the death sentence was mandatory, meaning that upon conviction for the offence 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.

Following this case, mandatory death penalty was declared unconstitutional in the Susan Kigula & 417 others vs. Attorney General case, whose judgment is one of the most quoted worldwide in the death penalty jurisprudence.

In the Kigula case both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, in 2005 and 2009 respectively, held mandatory death sentences unconstitutional because, among others, it barred consideration of the accused individual’s circumstances in sentencing, and interfered with the principle of separation of powers by taking away the judges’ discretion in choosing an alternative sentence besides death for some crimes.

After this conviction, Susan Kigula became the leading figure in the landmark case of 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.
Following this case, the mandatory death penalty was declared unconstitutional in the Susan Kigula & 417 others vs. Attorney General case, whose judgment is one of the most quoted worldwide in the death penalty jurisprudence.

In the Kigula case both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, in 2005 and 2009 respectively, held mandatory death sentences unconstitutional because, among others, it barred consideration of the accused individual’s circumstances in sentencing, and interfered with the principle of separation of powers by taking away the judges’ discretion in choosing an alternative sentence besides death for some crimes. 

Further on, the courts held that a delay of 3 or more years without execution, following confirmation of a death sentence by the highest appellant court, is unconstitutional. The case’s outcomes led to a decrease in the death row population, because all death row inmates who had not been executed for over 3 years after conviction had their sentences turned into life imprisonment, while those with convictions arising out of mandatory death sentences, that had not exhausted the appeal process, were referred back to the high court for mitigation hearings.

Out of this, many death sentences were substituted with determinate sentences (5 – 50 years) and some have since then served their sentences and been released, including Susan Kigula. Uganda is also categorized under the abolitionist de facto countries having not executed anyone for over a decade.

Furthermore, in November 2014, Uganda abstained from voting at the UN resolution moratorium on the use of death penalty. This was a positive change because the country had voted against the resolution on four previous occasions.


JT: Would you please describe the circumstances that led you to be involved and in the forefront of the case Susan Kigula and 417 Others vs. Attorney General?

SK: The main thing is that I was on the death row! I’ve always worried about my fellow inmates as well, and then I was involved in a campaign against the death penalty when I was still in prison.

I did most of my advocacy through songs, through lobbying the media – I gave interviews to a television station and a local radio station. I would write memoranda of appeal to the political leaders, to the religious leaders, and to other “top people” in the Government, asking them to hear our voice and trying to plead to the president of Uganda to abolish the death penalty.

It was an extensive campaign, and I wanted to expose myself to the media. I would use those opportunities, as a leader, to make sure that our voices were heard.

So, those are some of the circumstances that led me to be a part in that case, but, well, regarding the fact that it was my name that stood out, I wouldn’t say that it was something so special, but, of course, I think it actually depended on all the activities that I was involved in.

Other inmates were also behind me and supporting me, there was also lobbying in different areas. But because I was more actively involved than the others, I definitely captured the outside audience. I wasn’t a coward, you know?

Prisons in Africa should become places of positive transformation, which is the first thing in human rights and rehabilitation (…) Deprivation of freedom does not mean deprivation of humanity.

JT: It was the first time in the World History that a country’s entire death row population filed a joint petition against capital punishment.
How was this possible? And how do you comment on the role that the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative and the Law Firm had on this case?

SK: The Foundation for Human Rights Initiative played a very important and pivotal role in filing this petition and engaging the international community to come up and support this petition. And they spearheaded it because we were behind bars! They were there for all of us, the inmates that had been sentenced to death.

And Katende Ssempebwa & Company Advocates was the Law firm that represented us legally in court and they did a lot of research, which was essential and really helped the success of the case because it was the first of its kind, so we needed all that.

JT: Being deprived of freedom and awaiting to be executed is something that hardly can be described in words, but would you please try to retrace your thoughts and feelings when you were on that situation and tell us about your life back then?

SK: Being sentenced to death is worse than living as a blind person, because your entire being is clouded in darkness. I lost hope and, since I was still a young girl, I thought that my life had gone to waste. I’ve always asked myself: ” Why me?”

Hopelessness crippled in and everywhere I looked seemed like there was no way out, there was no hope. I thought about how I would die… I could, at times, hold my breath to imagine how my life would be squeezed out of me.

And whenever I would capture those moments I would be so scared. It’s a horrible indescribable feeling as you can imagine. They tell you you’re going to die when you’re not sick… It was horrible!

JT: You became worldwide known, since it is your name that stands out from the list of the entire death row of Uganda’s prisons.
How do you feel about that and how do you see the fact that you are the face of such evolution in the jurisprudence of your country?

SK: The most important thing that I feel happy about is that, through the case, so many people’s lives were changed, and, honestly, I don’t take pleasure in the fact that I’m widely known and so popular.

I take pleasure in the fact that even when I’m out of prison I am still actively involved in the advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty in Uganda, Africa, and the entire world. This is what gives me pride and this is what I’m looking for to see in the future.

JT: You have done your undergraduate studies in Law with a foreign university while you were imprisoned.
Why have you decided to study Law and what were the circumstances that enabled you to pursue this goal?

SK: It was not on my agenda, at the beginning, to be honest, because first of all I was a victim of the Law… I really hated Law in the beginning. I was like: “No, this is not something I want to do, because I can’t go anywhere, I can’t ever get justice”.

But it was Alexander McLean, the Director General of African Prisons Project – a UK charity organisation that operates in Uganda and in Kenya prisons – who came up with that the idea because after studying high school we didn’t have a university, so I was stuck.

He came and told me: “Susan, you know you can make a difference in life”. And I was like: “No, why me?” He asked me why I wouldn’t take Law. He told me, he believed I could do better… I had known him for so many years, since when he was coming to prison [as a volunteer] before he even started African Prisons Project… He then introduced me to the Legal Studies and sponsored me to study Law at the University of London.


Susan Kigula’s at her graduation in prison

So, he kept on encouraging me, because he’s also a lawyer himself, and when I started studying, I realised that I could actually do something, and then my eyes were opened. And because of the injustices and of the miscarriages of Justice that I was seeing and that were taking place in prison, I realised that if I would pursue this dream, I might be able to help the marginalized of the society, that was my passion: to make sure that poor people would get access to justice.

So, I passionately took it up and I graduated with a Law degree later on. And I used my legal knowledge to help my fellow inmates in prison through the legal aid clinic that I set up in prison. So, many of them access Justice through that legal aid clinic which was free of charge, of course. And that was the condition in the prison and I was really helping them in their rehabilitation so, I realized that honestly, it was worth it to take my degree in Common Law.

JT: What has enabled your release before the end of your sentence and what is your situation before the Justice system of Uganda?

SK: I am released, totally. I’m free. I don’t have anything like I’m on probation or anything… I’m free.

I was released because of my good conduct in prison, and because of the way I have reformed, because I was helping prison authorities to rehabilitate other prisoners, and because of the way I was involved in different activities in prison. Even the outside society would really see that Susan Kigula, though she’s still in prison, she’s doing a great work in cutting crime.

In Uganda Prison Service if you’re well behaved, and if you have a good conduct report and they are really convinced that you’re ready to join the society, that you are not a threat to society – instead, that you get to benefit society – they reduce the time you’re supposed to be in prison, because they realize that society needs you to go out there and help transform people’s lives. So this is how I was released.

JT: What have you been up to since your release and what have you been involved in, as far as human rights and the abolition of the death penalty are concerned?

SK: I was released one year ago, and I have been attending a number of events: I attended the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, in Norway and I have been invited as a guest speaker at that conference that took place in June last year.

And then I was invited to Sweden, to speak on behalf of the children of prisoners. And I was invited as well to go to France, to commemorate the 50th anniversary since the abolition of the death penalty of that country, and also to celebrate the World Day against the Death Penalty – that was in October last year.

Then I was in Romania as a speaker – I was invited by ICPA – I was there to represent African Prisons Project, and then I was invited to Italy, by the Community of Sant’Egidio, to attend and participate in the activities of the International Conference “No Justice Without Life – The Death Penalty in a Globalized World” – that is a campaign against the death penalty as well.

And I visited so many universities – in France, as well, I spoke to the students in universities on how to make better choices in life, I helped them to actually embrace and appreciate what they have, and I also tried to help them realize that even if their countries don’t have the death penalty, they should not just think that it’s OK, because anytime anyone can come up and try to convince the nation to re-instate it.

Recently I was invited to a high-level panel on the death penalty in Geneva, Switzerland: I was speaking to the United Nations Human Rights Council – that was this last February to March. I’ve attended many different conferences: I was in the Gambia to speak in the human rights conference and I am always involved and engaged in activities of human rights and against the death penalty.

Right now, I am working with the African Prisons Project and working in prisons in Uganda and in Kenya helping to set up legal aid clinics, whereby poor prisoners can have access to Justice. We help train the inmates on basic legal knowledge so that they can help others as well…

Our vision at African Prisons Project is that prisons in Africa should become places of positive transformation, which is the first thing in human rights and rehabilitation. So we believe that deprivation of freedom does not mean deprivation of humanity.

We intend to bring dignity and hope to the men, women, and children living and working in prisons across Africa.
African Prisons Project: they’ve been like a parent to me because they’ve been there with me throughout prison and, when I came out of prison, they helped me in my reintegration and they have given me a job as well, so I’m employed as their ambassador.


Prison in Uganda

JT: How do you see the big picture of the Criminal Justice in Uganda, in particular, and in Africa, in general?

SK: Africa, as a whole continent, almost possesses the same alignment in its jurisdictions pertaining, as any matters of criminal justice. The criminal justice systems in Africa work like this: those who cannot pay for justice aren’t able to find it.

It is so complex, so bureaucratic, and not of easy access. So the poor people who are imprisoned really don’t have access to justice, so that’s why I chose this struggle, to obtain justice. African Prisons Projects is working around the clock to see that the people who are in prison have the possibility to defend themselves from the intimidating environments of the Courts.

They [African countries] are almost all the same… We just have to work hard and continue to work hard and harder to make them a better place. W we have to make a difference, we shall not get tired.

JT: What challenges have you faced to reintegrate society, being an ex-convict?

SK: My family welcomed me back home, though my parents died when I was in prison and they were the ones taking care of my daughter because I left her when she was just one year old. It was a challenge for me to try to build a home with my daughter after so many years when I didn’t have means, without a job. I had to find a home for her.

It was very challenging and very difficult for me. But luckily some friends came in to support me because that was before I even finished my education and also before I was employed with African Prisons Project.

Another challenge was technology. That beat my understanding! I needed to learn how to use a screen touch phone – for so many years I didn’t know how to use a phone! So, I had to learn how to use a phone, how to use a computer. And I realized that people are much more attached to their gadgets than to people. It was quite a challenge.

I faced rejection from some people who felt that I wasn’t worth the attention because I’m an ex-prisoner. And, you know, it feels so bad when you’re rejected… because you are totally transformed and rehabilitated, and you’re ready to live in the society. That was one of the reasons why I was released before my time; it was because of my good character.

Also the fact that one country has rejected me when I was trying to attend a conference, just because I had a criminal past. It was the UK. One of their migration rules did not permit people with criminal records to step in the UK (if you had been in prison for more than four years). I didn’t want to stay in the UK and I wasn’t asking to be a resident… It was just a conference that I was supposed to attend but I was denied that.

It doesn’t even matter to them whether you’re rehabilitated, whether you’re reformed, whether you’re helping the nation, it doesn’t matter to them! So it’s a challenge for me and I’m worried for my other fellow inmates, who are being reformed and rehabilitated, and I feel that really some exception should be engaged.

But I have travelled to other European countries and I want to commend them for not being vindictive and judgmental, and for having seen a positive change in me and for seeing me as a human rights activist.

I thank them for not dragging the past into my future: I’ve been to France, to Norway, to Sweden, to Romania, to Switzerland and to other African countries, and I hope to travel to other European countries.

But it’s quite a challenge because when you think you’re ready to join the society again, and that you’re ready to live with people, you’re still judged by what happened. That cannot stop us from going ahead and fighting for the rights of people.

JT: What do you plan for the future?

SK: My plans are together with African Prisons Project, because I work with them. They’re training me, actually, because I have a vision and goals to pursue in the future.

Initially, there is a plan for the African Prisons Project to set up a Law firm where ex-inmates, who have studied law in prison, can work alongside other legal experts and try to help yield justice at a lower cost to the marginalised.

But personally, I intend to open up a Law firm to help the poor as well to get justice, and I hope to continue with abolition [of the death penalty] campaigns until we live in a world without the death penalty.

I’m also passionate about helping children of prisoners; they are the innocent victims of Justice… I intend to reach out to these forgotten angels because they need to be protected. When their parents go to prison, some of them end up in prostitution, some of them are victims of child sacrifice in Africa, others are subjected to child labour, and others are exposed to human trafficking because there is no one who protects them! Others end up on the streets, becoming homeless children – they have no shelter, they have no food, they don’t go to school… Others are sexually abused by the people who pretend to take care of them when their parents are imprisoned. Others end up committing crime and hence finding their parents in prison, which doesn’t break the cycle of crime.

So, I want to help the children, and I want to address that plight because the prosecuting agencies don’t care once the parents are taken to prison. I also plan to help women who are being released after so many years in prison, helping them to better reintegrate society as responsible mothers and citizens, and also to continue to fight for the rights of the women, the children, and the prisoners.

In the future, I hope to start up a Trust firm: I want to help the people who do not know how to invest their small earnings, because usually, we have a culture in which when the husband dies, the relatives take over the property and the widow and the children are left with nothing! These are things that really touch my heart.

As far as studying is concerned, I am going to do a course, which is going to be one year, and then I want to get a master’s degree as well.

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