Abolitionist of the month: Edward Edmary Mpagi, former Ugandan death row inmate

5 mars 2013

On June 5, 1981, Edward Mpagi and his cousin were arrested for murder. They denied having committed the crime, but at the time neither young man could speak English. Without an interpreter, they were unable to defend themselves.

Both were convicted and sentenced to death in April 1982. The following year, the court of appeals upheld the conviction. “I was stunned, paralyzed by the shock, the horror. I thought that the judicial system could not convict innocent people,” Edward said. But it did.

After two years of detention, Edward and his cousin were transferred to a special unit of the Luzira high security prison. Years passed. His family was finally able to demonstrate that Edward never committed murder. The proof was that the alleged victim was still alive.

However, at that time in Uganda it was impossible to have a decision made by a judge revoked. In 1989, the Attorney General proved Edward’s innocence. Time kept passing by…

Noise from the coffins

The death row is in Section E of Luzira Prison, as well as the gallows. Executions are never announced, and any change in the behavior of the guards could be a sign.

When the inmates’ walks are shortened, however, it is a sure sign: there will be executions in three days. Prisoners are then forbidden to leave their cells, and wait in terror. They could be next…

Guards walk up and down the the hallways. They shout out names. A few inches away, right on the other side of the cell doors, each man begs for his name not to be called.

Each time, Edward told himself: “Once the selection is complete, there’s a surge of relief. I still have at least one more day to live.”

The guards lock chains to the condemned prisoners’ feet. They are forced out into the hallway, crying, screaming, shouting, wailing. And sometimes singing a prayer.

Each time, Edward remained in his cell. He still thinks about the strange noises that everyone had been hearing those previous three days. It sounded like millwork. Indeed, just behind Section E, there is a carpentry. The noise the prisoners had been hearing was the noise of coffins being made for those to be executed.

How to survive? The suicide rate is highest during these three days of waiting.

"Then we heard a loud noise, like an explosion," said Edward. All the inmates “lucky” enough to remain in the cells recognized the sound of the trap door opening beneath the condemned man’s feet.

Wasting time on death row inmates?

“Cruel, degrading, inhuman…” Edward's voice remains calm when he describes the life conditions on death row in Uganda. The food is atrocious. At 8 in the morning they get some gruel and at 2 in the afternoon a plate of beans. A medical prescription is required for hot water or salt. Depending on who the Commissioner of Prisons is, the duration of walks ranges from 24 minutes —to empty chamber pots— to a few hours —to exercise.

Personal space is always limited, with five people in a cell designed for one inmate. Every prisoner has the right to two blankets. The arrival of a few mattress in 1996 was a great event. In 18 years on death row, Edward never saw beds.

However, he has seen 180 prisoners die of chronic epidemics such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, tuberculosis, AIDS, prior to their execution. In 1984, Edward begged the prison authorities to help his cousin, who has contracted malaria. “You’re going to die anyways! What is the point of giving you medication? We will not waste taxpayer money, or the staff’s time!,” was the answer. Edward's cousin died in 1985.

A “Wiseman” for the other inmates

Edward taught his fellow inmates to read and write. He was useful, he was alive, he became the “Wiseman” for others. At least until 2000, when a presidential committee decided to release the oldest prisoner of Luzira.

Edward was free, 20 years after his arrest. His wife was dead. Due to clashes with the guerrillas in Uganda in 1985, there was no trace of two of his children. Due to lack of resources, his other children have never been to school. The Wiseman’s children are illiterate.

Friday, March 30, 2012. It is very hot in Kinshasa. The Interregional Conference on Strategies for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Central Africa begins. Opening ceremony, official speeches… Some people step outside to cool off.

Then the chairman announces Edward, who takes his cane and moves forward very slowly. The public does not know that he has had a heart attack a few weeks ago. Once on stage, he looks up. His eyes are filled with suffering.

Nobody leaves the completely silent room any more.

“I’m Edward Edmary Mpagi, Ugandan, and of sound mind. I am here to give you my support.”

Desislava Raoul
Together against the Death Penalty – ECPM