The Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) strongly believes that the death penalty is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment as well as a violation of the right to life. It is against this premise that FHRI has, since 1994, concentrated on the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty. In this regard, FHRI has produced many feature articles, appeared on radio and television talk shows, held a number of practical human rights training workshops, meetings and seminars on the death penalty. The campaign however, received two major setbacks due to the executions that took place in 1996 and 1999.
The executions mentioned above did not deter FHRI and so in 2003, FHRI filed a petition on behalf of all death row prisoners through a prominent legal team, Katende, Sempebwa & Co. Advocates. This petition was done through the landmark case of Susan Kigula & 417 Others vs. Attorney General which challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty. The Constitutional Court (2005) and Supreme Court (2009) held that the death penalty is in itself constitutional. Both courts nevertheless, held that mandatory death sentencing was unconstitutional and that any inordinate delay between final appeal and execution lasting longer than three years was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court further held that, respondents whose death sentences had been confirmed by the highest appellate court, must have their petitions for mercy under article 121 of the Constitution, determined within three years. If no decision has been made by the executive within three years, their death sentences would be commuted to imprisonment for life without remission. The Court also held that for respondents whose sentences arose from the mandatory provisions and had cases pending before the appellate court would have their cases remitted to High Court for mitigation.
The Susan Kigula ruling has had multiple effects. First, it restored the discretion of judges. This means that judges are not restricted to handing down death sentences for capital offences. Secondly, the discretion has led to the reduction of death sentences handed down since the Supreme Court ruling in 2009. Thirdly, there has been a reduction of death row inmates as a result of the mitigation hearings and commutation of sentences if petitions for mercy under article 121 of the Constitution have not been heard within three years. Fourthly, the judgement has been used as jurisprudence within East Africa. In Tanzania for example,the Legal and Human Rights Centre has petitioned a similar case within their national courts challenging mandatory death sentencing on similar grounds.
FHRI has also embarked on legislative reform by developing a private members bill titled, ‘The Law Revision (Penalties in Criminal Matters) Miscellaneous Amendment Bill, 2013’. The bill’s objective is to enforce the Susan Kigula ruling by amending all laws that provide for the mandatory death sentence, including the Penal Code Act, Cap 120, the Anti-terrorism Act 2002 (Act No. 14 of 2002) and the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces Act 2005 (Act No. 7 of 2005). It proposes a reduction in the number of offences that attract the death penalty. The Bill also seeks to amend the Trial on Indictment Act Cap 23 to the extent that it denies persons facing the death penalty the right to mitigation. The bill is supported by Hon. Alice Alaso, Hon. Fox Odoi, Hon. Paul Mwiru and Hon. Medard Ssegona. The bill received a certificate of financial implications in 2015. Once the bill has been gazetted, it will be tabled in Parliament.
The campaign has evolved into a regional one. FHRI, in partnership with Penal Reform International (PRI), has collaborated with local organisations in Kenya and Tanzania to work towards abolition within the region. Campaigning initiatives in Kenya and Tanzania have been carried out through human rights trainings and workshops on the death penalty targeted at prison officials, civil society, media and the judiciary. FHRI has also lobbied parliamentarians in these countries to push for legislative reform on the death penalty. The regional campaign has also resulted in the formation of an East African Coalition against the Death Penalty. The coalition’s main objective is to work towards the progressive abolition of the death penalty in East Africa.
At the international front, FHRI has played a significant role by making submissions to the international and regional human rights bodies on the status of the death penalty in Uganda. FHRI has made submissions to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and consistently provided information that has been used in the UN Secretary General report to the Human Rights Council on the death penalty in East Africa. Furthermore, FHRI was elected onto the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. This has enabled FHRI participate in campaigns aimed at the universal abolition of the death penalty.
Even with these achievements, the campaign has two main challenges. The first being the social environment which is riddled with increase in gruesome crimes like the albino killings in Tanzania, terrorist attacks and the public’s support for the application of the death penalty. Secondly, the lack of political will to scrap the death penalty from the statute books. Nevertheless, as earlier mentioned FHRI believes that the death penalty is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment as well as a violation of the right to life. It will therefore continue advocating for the abolition of the death penalty in East Africa.