Death row inmates and abolitionists take Uganda’s death penalty to court
On July 4 last, Uganda’s Supreme Court heard both sides’ arguments in a five-year long legal battle against the death penalty. The government wants to retain the death penalty as a constitutional form of punishment, while all 417 prisoners who were on death row in 2003 then took a court case against capital punishment, which “amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment their lawyer”, according to their lawyer, Frederick Ssempebwa.
The constitutionality of hanging, Uganda’s method of execution, was also questioned in the case.
Since then, Ssempebwa’s legal firm has been providing free legal representation for the petitioners. They have received support from the Death Penalty Project, a British NGO that offers legal help to people facing the death penalty around the world. According to documents published by the Death Penalty Project at the time, “the case is of huge significance as it represents a broad constitutional challenge to all aspects of the death penalty in Uganda”.
A first victory
In June 2005, Susan Kigula and her 416 fellow death row prisoners claimed a first victory in the Constitutional Court. The judges ruled that mandatory death sentences, as well as a delay of more than three years between the death sentence and the execution, was unconstitutional.
All the petitioners fell under either condition, and the decision meant that all their death sentences were overturned. However, the Constitutional Court’s decision failed to outlaw the principle of the death penalty.
Uganda’s Attorney General then took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that mandatory sentences should remain constitutional. In turn, the 417 petitioners appealed the ruling, hoping that the courts would ban the death penalty completely.
With last July’s hearing, the case has entered its final stage. In its latest newsletter, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), a Ugandan member of the World Coalition that has supported the petitioners since 2003, reported that the case was heard in “a packed court room”. According to FHRI, there are now more than 900 death row inmates in Uganda, all of which are “eagerly awaiting the judgement”.
According to the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor, the case holds hope for anti-death penalty activists: “For the most part, the government’s legal team looked ill-prepared, and there were instances that just fell short of resulting in embarrassment”, it reported.
However, they will need patience as the Supreme Court has warned that it would take time to make a decision.