Friday, November 02, 2012

Prisoners Rot on Death Row in South Sudan

Friday, November 02, 2012

Prisoners rot on death row in South Sudan

Impoverished South Sudan was left in ruins after decades of war with Sudan before separating in 2011 after a landslide independence referendum

Kenneth Kaunda says that the only reason he is on death row in a jail in South Sudan is because he reported a corpse he found in the road four years ago with a knife stuck in its chest.

“Whether you killed or didn’t kill, you get sentenced to death — this is the situation in South Sudan,” he said, as others crowding around nod and clamour to tell similar stories of injustice.

In the ramshackle capital of the world’s newest nation, over 100 people await execution in filthy and crowded conditions, which human rights activists say break basic freedoms, with many never having even seen a lawyer. “The judge told me I’m the one who killed this person. I said: ‘Let him show me the evidence’, but he refused,” Kaunda said. He is one of eight death row inmates interviewed by AFP, none of whom had money for a lawyer.

Accused of murdering her husband, mother-of-six Stella Juwa Felix was allegedly beaten for 17 days by police, while three other suspects with lawyers were released before the trial.

The court’s decision to sentence her to death took just five minutes and like most, she claimed she was not given the chance to speak in her defence.

“They said that my sentence was to hang me,” Felix said. “Now what am I to do? I just pray to God.”

Prison officials demand that photos taken by journalists of shackles, or disturbed prisoners left naked, locked in dank cells or smeared in their own excrement are deleted. But prison and government officials keen for outside help are quick to point out flaws in the system, from poor infrastructure, to untrained police absorbed from rebel movements.

Impoverished South Sudan was left in ruins after decades of war with Sudan before separating in 2011 after a landslide independence referendum. But like so much in the country, the legal system was left in tatters, with sometimes conflicting, overlapping systems of justice.

Lawyers and judges are few and often inexperienced, while those who have served for years trained in the Islamic-based laws of the Arab-speaking north, who sometimes cannot read new laws now written in English. “There’s a very high chance that people have been executed that have not received those fair trial protections and may in fact not be guilty of the charges brought against them,” said Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch. Apart from confirming two hangings publicised in August, officials could not say how many people face the death penalty or have been executed this year.

Fears the innocent are being sent to the gallows are glossed over, and Andrew Monydeeng, the deputy director for prisons, claims that appeals are dealt with within 14 days, and after that “fate is fate”.

But Kaunda, a former rebel soldier who fought for South Sudan’s independence, says he has received no response to an appeal filed
in 2009.

Like many others, he scoffs at the likelihood of the legal system saving him. “I cannot believe in this system,” he said, waving at the overcrowded prison, bursting with almost 1,250 inmates, almost three times the maximum number it was built for in the 1950s. “What they are doing is not law, but playing games.” Shackled in chains — to show that she faces a death sentence for the killing of a relative — 45-year old Mary Sezerina says that the prison is like a “pit of hell.”

“There was independence but nothing has changed here in the prison”, she said, adding she has not heard back from appeals made after her arrest in 2005.

During the civil war, firing squads were used, but as David Deng of the South Sudan Law Society notes, officials in the rebel movement-turned-government still see the death penalty as a useful tool. “For them capital punishment is an indispensable deterrent to try to keep a lid on some of the crime in South Sudan”, Deng said, pointing out that the country is awash with guns.

“To sentence someone to death who doesn’t have a lawyer, is unable to challenge evidence that is clearly an egregious miscarriage of the law, something which should not be permitted in any society,” he added.

While President Salva Kiir has the last say in signing lives away or pardoning those festering in jail, his legal advisor Talar Deng could not give details on how and when this has been used. But Talar insists that while lower courts may make mistakes, appeals go to experienced professionals in a higher court.

“Our systems are like any other systems, they may have some loopholes here and there,” he said.

While Talar points out the death penalty was introduced by British colonial rule — and that traditional custom was to pay cows as blood money — there seems little support to bow to calls by rights groups, the European Union and church organisations for a moratorium.

“In South Sudan, everything is a priority,” he said of the grossly underdeveloped country, a land where basic healthcare and education services are lacking, and where rule of law is more often a concept than reality. afp

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