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People Behind Bars

A work of meditation

  On the death penalty


By Poet Rais Neza Boneza


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 If we stand by the principle, THOU SHALL NOT KILL, death penalty should be abolished and replaced by detention for life or other measures with the aim of redeeming the culprit. If we do not stand by principles, at certain moment we get confused and do not know what to do.”


                                Fr. Agostoni



“Crime is a violation of people relationships. Then justice ought to seek first of all to repair, to make right, it identifies needs and obligations so that things can be made right through a process which encourages a dialogue and involves victims and offenders (both victims).”



Poet Rais Neza Boneza



I. The ten lessons








1.      What are the worst crimes in Uganda law?


   In Uganda, the High Court must impose a sentence of death where the accused is convicted of any of the following offences provided under the penal code of Uganda, cap 106:


-         treason, contrary to section 25 (1) and (2)

-         murders, contrary to section 183

-         robbery with aggravation, contrary to section 235

-         rape, contrary to section 118



It is not mandatory for the High Court to impose the death penalty for the following offences.


-         Treasonous offences contrary to section 25 (3) and (4);

-         Kidnapping with intent to murder, contrary to section 235;

              -     Defilement, contrary to section 123 as amended by statute No. 4 of 1990







Lord, our fear rises from the uncertainty of Horizons

            It flows in lour blood and mind

We have lost faith in the light

          We have lost sense of time

Gives O! Lord, a New life

          Behind the Gas of the chamber




2.      Is the death penalty for very grave crimes accepted in all countries of the world?




               -  No, today 109 countries of the world, the majority reject the death penalty;




- 75 countries abolished death penalty for all crimes;



- 14 countries abolished death penalty for ordinary crimes;



- 20 countries abolished death penalty de facto. They retain the law in their statutes, but in the past ten years they have not executed anybody.



- 86 other countries retain and use death penalties but every month one or two countries in the world became abolitionists.


It is much better to abolish the law of death penalty. In fact as long as it is there, Heads of state may abuse it and the condemned are always in a state of anguish and fear. Moreover, wives and husbands of married prisoners may leave them; children may grow without proper scholastic training or parental guidance.


“Capital punishment is cruel and unusual because it is a relic of ancient days of penology when, slavery, branding and other corporal punishment were commonplace.  As we see in this new era so called civilised only few countries industrialised and which have been engaged in the way of democracy and peace practice it.”


3.      Is the death penalty in the Ugandan constitution?


In Uganda, the death penalty is not imposed by the constitution, but by the penal code, which should be revised because the death penalty is not in line with spirit of the constitution.


Article 44 says:


“Notwithstanding anything in the constitution, there shall be no derogation from the enjoyment of the following rights and freedoms:



-         Freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”




Article 24 states thus:



              - No person shall be subjected to any form of torture, cruel, inhuman and          degrading treatment or punishment.






                    BEHIND BARS




Resting darkness

In Luzira labyrinth of living-dead beings

The souls wait for the doctor

The one who take away the last breath of sentenced

The man of the state--- the Killer


On the other hand

In his head

People are murdered by the state

The mob kills the people

On the death row

We suppress our nation.










The Fact of Salvation



Do you forget?



That cross

On the Calvary Hill

For your Salvation

You profaned his Holiness

But through his innocent blood

He raised you from your death condemnation.




1.       Does the Catholic Church accept the death penalty?



Today, under the moral leadership of Pope John Paul II, the church practically rejects the death penalty and invites us all to do likewise. Most recent developments are the pronouncements of His Holiness in Rome; in Mexico and in the USA, January 1999. In this meeting with President Bill Clinton, the Pope pleaded for the abolition of the death penalty.



2.      Did the Christian Church is accept the death penalty in the past?


Yes. It accepted in the past in the extreme uses of the necessity to defend the faith however due to many abuses of this permission Pope John Paul II has humbly apologised for.



3.      What is the contemporary position of the Church on the death penalty?



The position of the contemporary Church regarding the death penalty lies in greater compliance with the fifth commandment that forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful the murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance. Besides being against the fifth commandment it is also directly against the commandment of Jesus that says: “Love your neighbour.” Those who kill whether ordinary individuals

or people in positions of authority surely do not love people.



4.      Why is John Paul II “news good life” important?



Pope John Paul II insists that in Jesus Christ we are being challenged to break away from our belief that death specially the institutional use of the death sentence solves our problems. That culture of death must be rejected. We are challenged to a radically “New culture of life.” This involves reflected commitment to life and the value of human life. That continues to be threatened today.







Does it flow from source to cataracts?

Is it like a light in crowded darkness?

O! Fathers

O! Friends of hope

Answer me, tell me


Is it a tragedy?

Or a mixture of hell and paradise?

A mirror reflecting the chaos

Or a time in the death row?


What, Then, is life?







“A society that respects life does not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is a violent spectacle of official homicide. Death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. It is applied most of the time randomly and discriminatory. It is imposed disproportionately upon whose victim is rich, poor or uneducated. It benefits are illusory but the bloodshed and the resulting destruction of community decency are real.” 



1.      Is the death penalty sometimes imposed on the innocent?



Yes! It often happens and it happened today in Uganda. We read in the Ugandan media about corruption amongst some policemen, prosecutors, DPPs, judges, lawyers etc…this bring us to accept that in Uganda innocent people may have also been executed.

Some former prisoners who knew from prison who is guilty and who is innocent, suggest that at least 50% of those condemned by Uganda High Courts are innocent.







If you want to know

Reach me, follow me

But to the other side of your sight:


Where tears have not been answered.

To a place where your mind will dare to explore

That place where man hates man


If you want to know…?

Join the front of humanity

I will accompany to the doorsteps of anxiety

Where they wait for the pain before their eternity


Follow me

Here, there, near, in the darkest row

Where angels and demons inter-act

Where heaven and hell are inter-changed

Where darkness suffocates the light of innocence


Now across the river of cynic-ignorance

Follow me

There, where tears are invisible

Where the silence can talk


Then, you want to know…?

How the hopeless follow their steps

Under the cup of the last sentence

Capital punishment

In this society---

Transformed in our custody

Our own world, Our prison…



2.      What does poverty have to do with unjust imposition of death penalty?



Poor and powerless people are ones whose are easily executed; Rich people who have committed a crime have two possibilities:



-         they can fabricate a case against a poor for example by buying false witnesses;



-         they can afford to hire not only the most famous lawyer in the nation but also different companies of lawyers which are able to rig the case. Then the rich man sentenced to death will be released.  






As we can see in our country, Uganda

In the great lakes region

The mob justice system reflects the weakness of our judicial constitution

It requires a sense of self-conscience and determination

Which means democracy to end up this barbaric way of solving our problems

Democracy means people are ruling

And have a word to say about their destiny

Unfortunately there is no people in our country

But we are a mass, a mob ready to follow blindly

Any passing winds of ideology



The death penalty is not necessary for us

Is a punishment for poor

For the working class

For the voiceless

A punishment that reflects our prejudices at any particular time

Because it intimates inequality


Not only that innocent people will perish, it is certain our prejudices

Will be exacerbated and the time of our society repair delayed




3.      Does the death penalty deter future crimes?



       That is an illusion. Capital punishment can never prevent crimes nor can it reform criminals.  It is entirely negative punishments and it can only satisfy the desire of revenge for the victim’s family and the public. By no means can it promote Social justice or sense of humanity.













Standing on the shores of Victoria

Born from the mysterious Ruwenzori

Land of lakes, Land of mountains

From your high your beauty is reflected

Land of cattle, Land green with vegetation

From on high your wonders are unfolded


Domain of ancestral majesty

Reigning above all souls with dignity

Domain of Bakabaka and Bami

Enthroned above the spirits with justice


In the years past your sovereignty engulfed the Bunyoro

From Lira to Tororo, your diversity

From Ankore to Busoga, rich myths

In the deepest North, the song of the sons of the Nile

From all points, the vibration of the Ugandan Tom-toms

Came under your regal influence.


Today, falls the rains of anxiety on the Fatherland

On the steps of Teso, blood has been shed

On the sands of Karamoja, death by canon

In Kampala, immorality in our sight:


Shooting in street

Hanging in Luzira

Tension in the state

The announced end of our society.


Sickness and misery are our host:

Our children succumb

Our wives die

All is selfish and greed.


The sons of rebellion reign in our Kraals

Wise are wise no more

The evil of egocentric tendencies bring divisions among us

In the feebleness of Uganda, today, people perish


Times erases

The turbulence of a storm passes

Yet that sacred moment is gone

It leaves pain and hopelessness of spirit

In the lost Kingdom of East

Where life is now a Far-west.






The state should not kill but should promote life and uphold human rights; this is the basic idea of the coalition of institutions engaged in public awareness and to reach the abolition of the death penalty in Uganda taking into consideration the trauma among people that derives from the country’s violent history. The coalition which is composed of the Foundation for Human right Initiatives, Human rights Network-Uganda, Uganda Joint Christian Council, Prison Fellowship, Amnesty international and the Uganda Human Right commission opted for a step-by-step campaign which will inform the public at large and lobby various stake-holders to review appropriate toward the complete abolition of the death penalty.




Scientific studies have failed consistently to prove to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deter crimes most recent research in United Nation 98 -99 has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent than life imprisonment and such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. It as never been shown a fear of death penalty has stopped a criminal from committing a crime. Yet society still approve of using the death penalty. 


a)  ARGUMENT “Pro”



               The society thinks that:


-         Justice is done by balancing good and bad in society or by satisfying the families of murdered victim. From the murderer it demands the same penalty he inflicted against one of their members.


-         The death penalty is a deterrent by instilling fear in anyone who might consider killing.


-         It protects society from dangerous people.


-         Maintenance of the convict is at the expense of state. That it is better then that criminals are eliminated.



Surely there is some value in it, but where is the meaning of justice in the above arguments. Taking the word of God which says that He created Man in his own image; albeit a sinner, this creature still maintains that image and remains the object of the attention of God. It is for that reason that God sent his only son Jesus to save the sinner.


   “Legally the essence of crime lies in breaking the law rather than the actual damage done, more officially the official victim is the state, not you. When a crime occurs the state as victim decides what must be done therefore our definition of crime and justice, then, might be summarised like this:


Crime is a violation of the state and its laws and Justice establishes blame and administers pain through a contest between offender and state.

This way of viewing crime might be called a Retributive justice.

It centred so heavily on establishing blame and looks indifferently to the past or the future.


b) ARGUMENT “Cons”


To kill somebody which is evil in itself, does not enter in any of the above acceptances of justice; to exchange evil with evil is not a good quality; it does not redresses the balance of values in society to be satisfied with others misfortune is not proper to a believer. Jesus said: “Do to others what you like others to do to you”. This may come to mean; “Do not do to others what do not want others to do to you” because the murderer also has parents, relatives, children who will feel the same pain. It is not good to wish them what one has suffered.

We have to think about a kind approach of justice. Nobody has ever considered the exchange of evils. Modern criminologists for this purpose have introduced the concept of a “Restorative Justice”.



A restorative approach of justice would understand that the essence of crime is a violation of people and of harmonious relation between them. Instead of asking first of all, who is done it? What should they get? A Restorative Justice will ask: “who has been hurt? What can be done to make things right? And whose responsibility is it?



True justice would have as it goals restoration, reconciliation and responsibility than retribution.



“Countries need not to fear sudden and serious changes in the curve of crime if they reduce their reliance upon death penalty.”



Some people think prisoners on death row are expensive so it is better to eliminate them. Yet the remedy is not to kill them; Uganda is a poor country, they say, we can not afford to spend money on criminals including robbers. It is true however, that the budget for prisons and prisoners up keep is the last considered. There are now in Uganda over 16,000 prisoners but they could eliminate some hundreds.

There are remedies:



-         To accelerate the judicial process. There are other many prisoners who are there even up to five years in remand without being tried;




-         There are many prisoners for very minor offences. The community service is for them. That prisoners are therefore not passive consumers but active producers,




-         Well organise the prisoners could produce furniture like in Luzira, agricultural products in farms to sell. Other initiatives could also be engaged in some kind of production.




-         Financial considerations can not justify the violation  of the most basic human right; “the right to live”





A breath from the fog

A breath from the shadows of their fear

A scream terror from their feelings


The heavy door is opened

The borders of sombre Abysses

The black chamber

The sombre tunnel

The route of crucified


A signature from high

An announced end

A man hanged


Witness of massacres

A nation ready to kill, to suppress


In the dark hall

Souls wait patiently

And fearlessly

Moment to moments

In the chaos of their custody

The inevitable approach of the times which arrives;

The revenge

The thirst of blood.







Capital punishment is subject to error by fallible judges and juries. It is not a demonstrate deterrent to violent crimes. In fact, the society that sanctions official vengeance may be setting an example of brutal devaluation of life that it wants to deter. One of our most serious concerns about the death penalty is well-documented fact that colours of one’s skin, the size of one’s bank account to purchase legal services. And the skills of legal council often have much to do with who actually is executed.


By abolishing death penalty the followings can occurs:


-         The innocent may be saved;


-         The hope of  life is given to poop and powerless who are the common victims of death penalty,

-         The prisoners may change their heart and vision of life. God want the conversion of sinners and not his death. Jesus comes on the earth not to judge the world but to save it.


-         The neutralisation of the spreading mob-justice; the fear that the abolition of death penalty may encourage “mob-justice” is unfounded.


Example in Uganda; the campaign against criminals so called “Wembley” supported ideologically and logistically by the state legitimates, promotes and sensitises people about the existence of mob-justice.



The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment because it violates the right to life and it is irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent as the Pope John II states expressly in his most recent papal encyclical: “The gospel of life” in a contemporary, capitalistic society with enough material resources; the death penalty is a delay for the emancipation of our society. Remember no one is beyond the redemptive power of God; The Prince of Peace was himself a victim of capital punishment.


There is no evidence that in suppressing the death penalty; the resurgence of mob-justice will happen, we can not make a law without a clear evidence of its necessity.

For example in Mozambique after the abolition of the death penalty came with the disappearance of the practice of the mob-justice.


The abolition of the death penalty would contribute to open the eye of citizens about   the true source of criminality. It abolition by law is one important factor to sensitise citizens against mob-justice. As said President Sir Dawda Javana of Gambia: “To repay brutality with brutality in my opinion does not serve any useful purpose.








Thirsty Soul



Where is that source of peace?

Where is that light of compassion?

We look, We try to find out

But nothing----

Alas! Nowhere that star of guidance


But there, not far from our hearts

In the temple of sons and daughters of God

On the altar of Share and Fraternity

The Bread and wine of reconciliation

Ready for our relief

That Sun of our eternal life.




The African tradition of reconciliation and compensation was also suggested by an international meeting that took place in 1999 in England. The subject was “A New Approach for Penal Reform in a New Century.”

       Compensation is called “Restorative Justice” and reconciliation is called “Alternative Dispute Resolution.” The meeting recommended that both Restorative Justice and Alternative Dispute Resolution be legalised in all countries and their practice promoted among people.


 Here are some suggestions:



a.      Restorative Justice



Formal criminal justice systems have marginalised victims of crime and have failed to oblige offenders to face up to the damage and harm which their actions have caused. The basic principle of restorative justice is a determination to restore the balance between the victim, the offender and the community.


-         Restorative justice should be adopted in appropriate instances as a preferred form of criminal justice process because it strengthens the social fabric and is likely to lead to a reduction in levels of imprisonment.




-         Restorative justice should be promoted in each country as a legitimate part of the criminal justice process. There should be a programme to increase public awareness of the benefits of restorative justice.



-         Projects to promote restorative justice should be established in each country.



-         There should be training in law schools and other educational institutions on the principles of restorative justice. Those already working in criminal justice systems should be included in this training.



-         There should be arrangements for an exchange of best practice in restorative justice and to monitor and promote its development.




b. Alternative Dispute Resolution



         The mechanism for alternative dispute resolution should be participatory and take account of human rights and gender issues. Public awareness programmes should be developed in order to ensure the participation and the support of everyone, including governments, local representatives, including women, potential users, mediators and community in general. It should be recognise as a potential, valuable, and legitimate component of the rule of law.



c. Informal justice  




      Informal justice contributes to improving access to justice in a manner which is reconciliatory, inexpensive, intelligible, participatory, language and value sensitive to

local communities. Its emphasis on restoration and compensatory outcomes is a useful complement to the previous two strategies.








-         The death penalty states as a group do not have lower rates of criminal homicides in 1970’s 7.9/100,000)than non-death-penalty states(5.1 in the same years)



-         The persons who commit murder and other crimes of personal violence

may or may not premeditate their crimes. Most capital crimes are committed during moment of great emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when logical thinking has been suspended. Furthermore, the death penalty is futile threat for political terrorist because they act usually in the name of an ideology that honours it martyrs.



-     The capital punishment does not solves our society’s crimes problems but

threatening it leaves the underlying causes of crime undressed, and ignore

the many political and diplomatic sanctions (such as the treaties against as

asylum for international terrorists) that could appreciably lower

the incidence of terrorism.




People of the fatherland

People of the Great-lakes


The foundation of Nation

Plunged firmly in a wounded soil

Profaned by the lifeless remains of your Sons

No justice at your doorsteps

No truth within families

Only tension and fear in our society


Because of our selfishness

Everyday man and woman are crucified


Killings, massacres, executions…

Hymns of blood

Songs of death

Melodies of our nation


Today only regret in our souls

Angels and Saints mourns

The world is in perdition


But the last man still alive

Shouting in a crowded silence:











      “You shall not kill” is a God-given law which could be recall in our different 

rich proverbs of Africa as in Uganda so the commandment “You shall not kill” is universal.


For instance we find in the following two proverbs in Ankole, Kigezi:


-         “Omutsiko gwuiga nyinagwo”: “the collar chokes its” owners; meaning, Bad deeds recoil on you when you least expect it. The English PROVERB  “Blood will have blood”


-         “Ezi nteera zinshanga nshitamire”: That means, “I cause the dirt I sit on” like the saying of the gospel saying “He who wounds by the sword will be killed by the sword.”


*A Lugbara proverbs says, “Oleo ni ndra indi”;  “The sorcerer dies too”


*In Swaziland: “Akekho loyokomela elutsini njegentsetse”; “No one will ever die clinging on grass like grasshoppers. You can kill someone today but tomorrow you have die. You can not add his days onto yours.



Further truth that capital punishment is not a deterrent is voiced by an African scholar who noted that in some part of Africa, when thieves were being tied on trees for public shooting, other were busy stealing tyres and headlamps cars.


Crime will always be there, in spite of all efforts to prevent it. To abolish the death penalty does not mean to abolish all forms of punishment because punishments are necessary. 



            “For it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer”. (Romans 13:4)





What is that law?

Are we in a jungle?

What is the meaning of these rules?

Killing and Killing

Is it justice?

No I now know

Is injustice done to injustice?

The real meaning

Of death penalty.
















Imprisonment for life should replace death penalty

See the image of what should be down:

The prisoners work in jobs which are not slave like

Such work situation which create safer conditions

For Guards and others who work in prisons.

A portion of the prisoner’s earnings

Go to pay for their incarceration,

And another portion go into for victims of violence

And their survivors.



This contribute to the restitution fund for social

Psychological and spiritual help for victims and survivors families



And at the end to contribute also in providing financial help for families

Which have lost a wage earner to murder.




We must commit ourselves to a new culture of life, to discover the value of sanctity of human life-created, love, redeemed and nourished by God. We must not allow the sense of humanity and god to eclipse in our lives.


We must pray that we might grow and live in this commitment-that includes, from a deep appreciation of life, not only opposition to death penalty but also to be against abortion, euthanasia, contemporary institutionalised killing, war, genocide and all form of degrading poverty that militate against the dignity of human life.


In promotion of a new culture of life, we should overcome all that belongs to a culture of death. Jesus Christ was sentenced to death and died by crucifixion - the death sentence of his time. This fact alone should tell us much about how we Christians of today should regard the death penalty.























To work concretely against death penalty required to spread messages to us and future generations which should be of love, universal brotherhood not marked by slogans or propaganda, but by an internal value, the value of love your neighbour.

The second message should be of mercy and forgiveness. Because we are all sinners and we all need forgiveness and mercy. “Do to others what you would like others to do to you.”


A judgment without mercy is the application of the saying that: “Man is for the law.” This is inhuman. The law is for man. This is the judgment of mercy.


Dear reader May God give you a loving mind and wise heart.



Poet Rais Neza Boneza






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