Fri, Nov 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Three stories of innocents on death row

By Ed Pilkington  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Three men, three extraordinary stories. One spent 18 years in prison in Uganda for having murdered a neighbor later found to be alive. Another survived 34 years facing execution in Japan. The third became the 100th prisoner on death row to be found innocent and freed in the US.

Amnesty International brought the men together in New York before a hearing of the human rights committee of the UN yesterday that called for a moratorium on executions around the world as a first step towards abolishing the death penalty. It is the ultimate argument, the campaign believes -- the testimony of individuals who managed to survive the system, but who came close to being killed despite their innocence.

Venezuela became the first country to remove the death penalty in 1853, and the abolition movement has grown, with 133 states members. Britain abolished the penalty in 1967. As countries drop away, attention focuses on the remaining practitioners.

At least 1,591 people were put to death in 25 nations last year, but 91 percent of those were executed in six countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the US. China is known to have executed more than 1,000 prisoners last year, but the real figure may be closer to 8,000. Twelve US states put 53 people to death last year, but the practice has fallen to its lowest level in a decade thanks to the US Supreme Court's decision to hear arguments about the humanity of the lethal injection method next year.

The UN resolution, backed by 72 countries including the 27-nation EU, has no power to enforce a moratorium, but it is seen by campaigners as a chance to apply pressure for reform on those countries teetering on abolition.

Amnesty's death row expert, Piers Bannister, said the men's stories "provide graphic evidence that the death penalty is administered by flawed systems that put innocent people at risk."

Edward Edmary Mpagi spent 18 years on death row in Uganda. The hardest moments were when fellow inmates were taken away from their cells, leaving him to wonder if it would be his turn next. He counted 52 men who were taken for execution, often 10 or 11 at a time.

The first thing prisoners would know would be a feeling in the air, what Mpagi calls "something fishy."

Then the prison guards would take an inmate away. The other prisoners would shout "So-and-so is going!" and the condemned man would cry: "I am going! I am going to meet my Lord!"

Then there would be a three-day period while the condemned men were allowed to prepare themselves for death. Mpagi would hear the men singing.

At the end of the three days, he would hear them being led to the execution chamber, and then the thud of the body as it fell from the gallows.

Finally, the sound of nails being knocked into coffins. Only then, when all the men had been hanged, would he be able to relax.

"You think, `It could be me. Maybe this time I am going.' Only when the exercise is over does your heart come back. Until then, there is great fear," he said.

He was arrested in 1981, aged 27, and sentenced to death the next year for the murder of a neighbor in Masaka. Mpagi thought he saw the dead man, George William Wandyaka, standing at the back of the court during the trial.

A few years later, further sightings were made of the man. It transpired that Wandyaka's parents had carried a grudge against Mpagi's parents, and had staged the murder.

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