The story of Bison Kaula, the man who was sentenced to death in 1992 and was put up for execution three times, brings alive violent life in death and violent death in life, ALICK PONJE writes.
There was a time the death row at Zomba Maximum Security Prison was teeming with condemned convicts set to be executed in the dark gallows of a place virtually smelling blood and death.
“Being condemned to be killed like a dog is like you have already been killed. There is no life in that experience,” says Kaula, who was found guilty of murdering his farm worker in 1991.
The 65-year-old man from Khoswe Village, Traditional Authority Nsamala in Balaka, still denies the accusation on the premise that the servant, who was apparently sick, only slipped from his hands to his death.
That accident of 1991 sent Kaula to a correctional facility that, ironically, had no interest inrehabilitating him.
There, he would occasionally be assigned to clean the gallows, a high platform with horizontal doors that could open at the hangman’s time, to tighten the noose.
“I was supposed to end there. I was supposed to be executed in those gallows. Honestly, the world should not harbour such apparatus,” Kaula recounts.
Every visit to the hangman’s ‘workplace’ taught him about violent life in the shadows of death and violent death in a meaningless life.
“Then my name finally appeared on the list of 21 people to be hanged. I don’t know whether the hangman was tired but he spared three people and I was one of them,” he recalls.
Again, a list of 17 condemned prisoners to be killed was released and Kaula’s name was there. The hangman—without giving any reason—spared two and the Balaka resident was one of them.
In a symbolic linear progression of salvation, Kaula was the last one saved from a list of 11 convicts who were executed at Zomba Prison, salvaging one of the greatest stories of a condemned prisoner’s life.
To kill or not to kill ?
A spate of attacks on persons with albinism, that has left 22 brutally murdered, has reignited debate on the death penalty in Malawi.
About two years ago, Member of Parliament (MP) for Mulanje South, Bon Kalindo, led a march against the killing of persons with albinism with a key message that those convicted of murdering them should be sentenced to death.
There is that provision in Malawi’s statutes even though a moratorium imposed on it has prevented any execution since the re-attainment of multiparty politics.
But Pres ident of the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (Apam), Overstone Kondowe, also wants those found guilty of killing his ilk to have their lives ended too.
“We are not promoting new laws. We are just invoking the existing laws in our country. So what we are saying is that we expect that those found guilty of murdering our friend will be given capital punishment,” Kondowe said recently at the burial ceremony of the remains of MacDonald Masambuka, a 22-year-old man with albinism whose body parts were found after he had been reported missing for several weeks.
Minister of Information and Communications Technology Nicholas Dausi, who was among government officials attending the ceremony, also put his weight behind capital punishment for those found guilty of killing persons with albinism.
“Strictly only for persons with albinism, if someone kills and there is undisputed evidence, they have to be given capital punishment,” Dausi said.
But, still, there are those who want the death penalty to be abolished in its entirety, without any compromise.
Another way of punishing murder convicts?
Several criminal justice and human rights organisations fighting for the death penalty to be abolished argue that being on the death row is one of the worst experiences for prisoners and that the punishment does not really act as a deterrent.
Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (Pasi) National Director, Clifford Msiska, is one of those who believe there should be other ways of punishing murder convicts.
He says this is the view of 94 percent of traditional leaders who were surveyed as part of the national discourse on capital punishment.
“The traditional leaders have cited several reasons for thinking that death penalty is not serving any good. For instance, they say innocent people can be killed and that people are not given a chance to reform,” Msiska states.
He further explains that traditional rulers, whose communities were impacted by the death penalty, also point out that killed people cannot contribute to development and that there is a lot of trauma in the penalty.
Msiska could be speaking from what he has heard about the penalty, but Kaula speaks from what he has seen and felt.
“While on the death row, I stopped feeling like a human being. I could stay awake for two full days. I stopped thinking about anything, not even God. The trauma was just too much,” the ex-convict says.
Whither death penalty?
Kaula further discloses that even when he was approached by Pasi and its partners in the Kafantayeni Resentencing Project, death kept haunting him.
Yet this was about 20 years after a halt had been put on killing those sentenced to death.
“I was sentenced to death in 1992 and, up until 2015, I was living in death. I was a living dead man. I was a dead man living,” he narrates.
After his case was reviewed by the Supreme Court of Appeal, he was finally released from prison in February 2015.
“Initially, I did not even want to leave prison because I thought I had lost my life. I had lost my person. But after the insistence of [organisations in the Kafantayeni Project], I agreed to have my case reviewed,” he says.
Twenty-four other condemned prisoners were released and integrated back into their communities. They clearly do not want anyone to go through what they went through.
Msiska is optimistic that Malawi will soon do away with the death penalty “because that is what the people want”.
He says: “I have no doubt that, in the future, we will get rid of the death penalty as a punishment because that is what Malawians want. Laws should respond to what people need, not people responding to what laws say.”
In the meantime, it seems the national dialogue on the penalty has been overshadowed by other social and political events. Perhaps, it will soon hot up again.