Catholic Information Service for Africa Nairobi
It's Hell On Earth for Hundreds of Death Row Inmates
Lusaka - The common prayer of those on Zambia's jam-packed death row is for divine intervention to end their hell on earth and let the waiting hangman carry out his job speedily.
"It is so painful to be in suspense, we would pray to be hanged," Churchill Malama, 33, who was recently released, recounted to Inter Press Service. Malama spent three years on death row in the Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, located in the central town of Kabwe. His death sentence for murder was overturned by the Supreme Court in March.
The "torment and trauma" of life on death row were relieved only by worship and the exchange of words between inmates. "There are no activities there to relax your mind," Malama said.
He described as "painful and degrading" the living conditions for the condemned, crammed into the 48 cells on death row: "Each cell - measuring just two-and-a-half metres by two metres - is supposed to have just one or two inmates, but there were five or six of us with two mattresses to share."
There was no sanitation or ventilation. "We improvised toilets by cutting up five or two-and-a-half litre plastic containers for human waste. It was traumatic," Malama said.
During the day, death row inmates - totalling 306 at the time of his release - were let out of their cells. But the space in which they could move about was only three metres wide and 30 metres long, he said.
Malama recalled the traumatic day, Feb 10, 2005, when he was condemned to death by the High Court in the capital, Lusaka, after being held for four years as a remand prisoner.
Malama was loaded onto a truck with five other inmates, also condemned that day and taken at high speed to Kabwe. Twice in the years afterwards he attended Supreme Court appeal hearings. But his case was adjourned each time. On the third occasion, this year, the court set him free.
"I couldn't hold back my tears. I couldn't believe I was out of hell," Malama said. He intends to join the country's anti-death penalty campaign.
Campaigners interviewed by IPS expressed scepticism that Zambia would soon abolish the death penalty.
Bishop Enocent Silwamba, executive director of the Prison Fellowship of Zambia, strongly criticised Zambia's failure to do away with the death penalty. "With our imperfect criminal justice system, not everyone sentenced to death has committed a crime," he told IPS.
Since Zambia's independence in 1964, 53 people are believed to have been executed by hanging. In 2004, President Levy Mwanawasa promised not to sign any death warrants.