By Ananiya Ponje
In 1992, he was sentenced to death. But on three occasions, he evaded the hangman’s noose before eventually leaving the high walls of Zomba Maximum Security Prison.
Last week, Byson Kaula, the man who became a giant symbol of the fight against the death penalty,
breathed his last.
At least, it was not by another man’s hand.
“He was a powerful advocate against the death penalty. He himself had been sentenced to death after he accidentally slipped and dropped a sick man he was carrying,” says Reprieve, an organisation that fights for victims of extreme human rights abuses.
Kaula was its client in Malawi. He passionately spoke against the penalty by using his own “dreadful” experience in the condemned cells. Reprieve says because of the mandatory death penalty in place that time, there was no other outcome for him than to be thrust onto the death row. He spent every day of over two decades in prison
imagining he would be hauled to the gallows any time.
“When Malawi abolished the mandatory death penalty, we were able to free Byson as part of our resentencing project. He went on to take care of his elderly mother and work in a halfway house, counselling and supporting other former prisoners,” Reprieve says in a statement on the organisation’s Facebook page.
In his life after being released from prison, Kaula could tell whoever cared to listen what it felt like expecting to be
The gallows virtually smelt blood and death, he would say.
“Being condemned to be killed like a dog is like you have already been killed. There is no life in that experience,” Kaula once said.
He protested his innocence to his grave. He became the face of the fight against capital punishment to his last hour.
In prison, he would occasionally be assigned to clean the scaffolds, a high platform with horizontal doors that could open at the hangman’s time, to tighten the noose.
“I was supposed to end there. I was supposed to be executed in those gallows. Honestly, the world should not harbour such apparatus,” Kaula recounted during a session on the death penalty. He disclosed that every
visit to the hangman’s ‘workplace’ starkly reminded him about his own impending death. My name finally
appeared on the list of 21 people to be hanged. I don’t know whether the hangman was tired, but he spared three people and I was one of them,” he recalled.
Again, a list of 17 condemned prisoners to be killed was released and Kaula’s name was there.
The hangman—without giving any reason—spared two and the now-deceased Balaka resident was one of them.
He was finally the last one saved from a list of 11 convicts who were executed at Zomba Prison, salvaging one of the greatest stories of a condemned prisoner’s life.
Human rights bodies argue that being on the death row is one of the worst experiences for prisoners and that the punishment does not really act as a deterrent.
In 2018, 94 percent of traditional leaders who were surveyed as part of the national discourse on capital punishment rejected the penalty.
A report on the survey indicated that the local rulers, whose communities were impacted by the death penalty, pointed out that there was a lot of trauma in the convicts.
They were speaking from what they had mostly heard about the penalty, but Kaula could speak from
what he has seen and felt.
“While on the death row, I stopped feeling like a human being. I could stay awake for two full days. I stopped thinking about anything, not even God. The trauma was just too much,” he said.
He revealed that even when he was approached by the Paralegal Advisory Services Institute and its partners in a resentencing project, death had kept on haunting him.
Yet it was 20 years after a moratorium had been imposed on killing convicts in condemned cells.
“I was sentenced to death in 1992 and, up until 2015, I was living in death. I was a living dead man. I
was a dead man living,” Kaula once said.
His case was reviewed by the Supreme Court of Appeal and he was finally let out of prison.
Twenty-four other condemned prisoners were released and integrated back into their
communities. They clearly do not want anyone to go through what they did.
As the national dialogue on the death penalty progresses, perhaps, it is time to look again at the
experiences of people like Kaula whose stories must spur some action.