In 2015, Parliament passed a private member’s bill on abolition of the death penalty.
After protracted lobbying by a consortia of death penalty abolitionists the president assented to the law revision (penalties in criminal matters) miscellaneous amendment bill (2015).
To the consternation of human rights activists and legal practitioners the death penalty still remains on Uganda’s statutory books.
In spite of this apparent retrogression on legal commitments, the cause to scrap the death penalty off Uganda’s statues is not wavered as death penalty abolitionists still envisage a trickle of light at the end of the tunnel.
During the commemoration of the international day for the abolition of the death penalty, there was retrospection on Uganda’s campaign against the death penalty: assessing the key landmarks and the underlying barriers.
Ladislus Rwakafuzi, a human rights lawyer, traces the activism for abolition of the death penalty to the political and military upheavals of the 1970s and early 1980s; a period that was rife with gross abuse of human rights.
Nevertheless, summary executions, especially by firing squad, of political adversaries alarmed the conscience of human rights activists, legal and religious fraternity.
The flimsy nature of the cases of treason treachery and political subversion and conspiracy to overthrow the government startled Fr. Agostino Tarcisio, a Comboni missionary, who mobilised other religious leaders and human rights activists to lodge to lobby for the abolition of the death penalty
On top of being an unalienable natural right, the right to life also constitutes a legal right.
Nicholas Opyio, a human rights advocate, situates the case for abolition of the death penalty in the broader quest for access to justice as propagated by Fr. Agostino. ‘more often than not inability to afford legal representation renders suspects of capital offences vulnerable to the ultimate punishment-the death sentence.
Due to lack of legal options defendants have been compelled to plea bargain just to circumvent the complex criminal proceedings’.
It is against this backdrop that free legal services are being accorded as an intervention in the broader campaign against the death penalty. Fr. Agostino mobilized funds to ensure that indigents might engage the services of a lawyer.
In his book, Has the State the Right to Kill? A Question to Africa, Fr. Agostino gives an account of the defects in the legal justice system that victimise suspects.
While as there are a number of legal aid initiatives including the state brief and pro bono scheme, the overwhelming need for legal services by far outstrips the services that can practically be dispensed.
Uganda grapples with an acute shortage of attorneys: in 2011 there were only 2,000 attorneys for 37 million people. Currently, there are 3, 434 enrolled advocates for over 40 million people.
Dr. Livingstone Ssewanyana of Foundation For Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) attributes the perpetuation of the death penalty to deep-seated sentiments in society in favour of this archaic law. ‘
Relatives, friends of the victims of crimes that attract the death penalty are bent on having the perpetrators sentenced to death. Dr. Ssewanyana observes that the highly emotive nature of crimes that attract the death penalty has frustrated objective debate and community engagement.
Politically, offences that attract death penalty have, since the colonial era, been lodged to stifle the opposition.
Conformity with Global Human Rights Frameworks
On 21st December 2010 the United Nations general assembly adopted the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPR) aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
Categorically it recommended states to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. So far 16 African countries have abolished the death penalty.
This abolitionist wave in Africa seems to be confirmed with states waiting for the adoption of domestic bills proposing the abolition of the death penalty.
While the State Brief Scheme (SBS) was instituted to enable indigent suspects who would not afford legal services to get representation, inadequate commitment and facilitation on the side of the lawyers assigned cases under the scheme is frustrating the objectives of the scheme.