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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Freedom at last

It was joy and jubilation as 28 death row inmates walked out of prison as free men after spending more than a decade waiting to be hanged, thanks to a presidential clemency. But they are now confronted by the challenge of rebuilding their lives.
Zachary Ochieng

After spending between fifteen to twenty two years awaiting the hangman's noose at the infamous Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, 28 prisoners did not believe their ears when they were told that they were now free men. "That particular morning of February 25, a number of high ranking warders stormed our cell and I thought something had gone wrong. One of them assured us that all was well and that whoever heard his name being called out should consider himself a free man", recalls Gibson Njau, a former motor vehicle spare parts dealer who spent 16 years on death row.

Njau, 56, was convicted for robbery with violence and sentenced to death in 1987. The crime, which Njau swears he never committed involved the brutal attack on former Assistant Minister Achiya Echakara. Echakara was attacked in the company of a Ugandan girlfriend, Mrs Margaret Musungu, off Nairobi's Langata road. He was beaten unconscious and robbed of his vehicle. He died ten days later.

In the meantime, as police continued with their investigations, Njau, who had a spare parts shop in Nairobi's Gikomba area, was arrested over a bar brawl and later linked to Echakara's attack because the victim's vehicle was recovered near his house. Police believed he wanted to vandalise the car for spare parts. Njau and his co-accused Peter Murigi were convicted on the strength of circumstantial evidence adduced by Musungu, the key prosecution witness.

She identified them at a parade in Nairobi's Makongeni Police Station. While Murigi was identified by a gap in his upper teeth, a forensic expert said that some green cotton fibre that matched Njau's T-shirt was found on Echakara's grey coat. Njau also pointed out to "Africanews" a spot in Karura Forest where they would be tortured to confess to the violent robbery. The two maintained their innocence.

But what sealed their fate was the August 13, 1987 judgement by then Nairobi Principal Magistrate Justice Lucas Osiemo. "The only sentence provided by the law is death. I have no other alternative", thundered the magistrate. Then, as now, the two protested their innocence. In mitigation, Njau said: "I beseech this court not to treat death as lightly as sleep". But the magistrate would not hear of it. Instead, they were led away from the court, crest fallen, in what marked the beginning of their long journey to the gallows.

This marked the most traumatic experience of their lives. Until late February when they learnt of their freedom, death was never far away. "Each morning, as we heard a knock on the doors of our cells, we knew we were the next to be hanged", recalls Peter Gitau, a former butcher who spent 20 years on death row. Gitau told 'Africanews" that a number of prisoners were hanged in 1987 when he was there. "You would never know when your turn would come", he adds.

More distressing was the fact that some hangmen would taunt them by appearing in blood stained clothes as evidence that they had just hanged some convicts. "Sometimes we would be shown the gallows from a distance. We were staring death in the face", says a sobbing Njau. "It was distressing to see where one would be killed". Gitau recalls one hangman, a Mr Nganga, who would stand in front of them and point at anyone, saying that inmate would be the next on the noose.

Signs of an impending hanging were known to the inmates. According to Njau and Gitau, the executions usually took place between March and August, on Tuesdays and on Thursdays, at either 5.00am or 7.00pm. Several mean looking warders would go to the cells and herd out convicts to be hanged. "Those who were taken would weep as they left", recalls Gitau. "They would be given anything they wanted before being hanged. There would be loud music in a strange language played over loud speakers placed around the prison. The music would only stop after the hanging was over", he sadly reminisces.

Besides waiting for death, the condemned prisoners were held in isolation in Block "A", where they led a very depressing life. Though they were fed well, the agony of waiting for the hangman's noose was unbearable. They would be woken up early in the morning by tough talking warders and would all queue outside an open toilet, where they would relieve themselves as others watched. This would be followed by a breakfast of porridge at 7.00am, while lunch was served at 10.00am, followed by supper at 3.00pm.

The convicts lived in tiny cells measuring 7 by 8 feet, and holding up to 10 inmates. There was a plastic bucket at a corner, which was used as a toilet at night. The bucket would be emptied in the morning and used for drawing water for bathing. Diseases like Diarrhoea and Typhoid were common and nobody cared for sick prisoners. Some reportedly died in prison due to lack of medication.

The ex-convicts also speak of rampant corruption in prisons. Gitau recalls a number of convicts whose death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment even after their appeals were rejected in court. For this service, a convict or his relatives would part with between Kshs 200000 (US$ 2631) to Kshs 300000 ( US$ 3947). Those who could not raise the amount would wait for the day they would face the hangman. "Those of us who were poor and whose relatives could not raise the required amount could not buy our freedom. Poverty seemed to have sealed our fate. But our God finally heard our prayers", says a philosophical Njau, who underwent various Bible Study courses in prison.

And freedom they now have, but for a number of them, their dreams have completely been shattered, having spent half of their lives in prison. When Njau was arrested in 1987, he had a wife and three children, the first born being 9 years old then and the youngest one being only four. His wife, Lucy Wambui, developed breast cancer while he was in prison and finally succumbed to it. When he received the news of his wife's death, he asked his younger brother whether he was in a position to take care of his children.

But the brother, who was then jobless, was unable to shoulder the burden. Together with Njau, they agreed that the children be taken to their aunt in Uganda, where they still live, although Njau has not seen them. He now plans to remarry but has no house as the one he had collapsed while he was in prison. He now stays with his younger brother at Banana Hills, some 25km north-west of Nairobi.

He now appeals to the government and well wishers to help him put up a house, get a wife and a loan to enable him go back to his former business. But for 41 year- old Gitau, life after prison is posing very tough challenges. Unable to trace most of his relatives, Gitau, who was convicted of robbery with violence in Embu in 1983, now has to depend on the goodwill of relatives of his former colleagues in prison. He was a bachelor at the time of his conviction and now looks forward to starting a family. "I need to start a family. I am also appealing to the government and well wishers to help me with some loan to start a carpentry business, as I qualified when I was in prison".

Despite the dilemma now facing them over how to start their life afresh, Njau and Gitau are very grateful to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government for giving them a second chance in life. But as they savour their freedom, they blame the Moi regime for their woes and a corrupt and inefficient judicial system that had them convicted for crimes they swear never to have committed.

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