Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Cyberspace Casts Light on the Lives of Death Row Inmates



Cyberspace Casts Light on the Lives of Death Row Inmates

By Newton Sibanda

LUSAKA, Jul 29 (IPS) - "Can governments solve urgent social or political problems by executing a few or even hundreds of their prisoners?" asks Benjamin Mawaya, sweltering on death row in Zambia's Mukobeko high security prison in Kabwe, 150 kilometres from the capital of Lusaka.

Before anyone in the cyberspace community has time to click on a reply button, he posts an answer. "Nowhere it has been shown that the death penalty has any special power to reduce crime or political violence; everywhere experience shows that execution brutalizes those involved in the process. It is imposed and inflicted arbitrarily and it is used disproportionately against the poor."

Mawaya then swiftly concludes with a question for anyone who wants to go on debating with him: "If today's penal system does not sanction the burning of an arsonists home, the rape of a rapist or the torture of a torturer, it is not because they tolerate the crimes. Instead, it is because societies understand they must be built on a different set of values from those they condemn. Why not apply these principles to capital punishment …?"

The internet platform allowing Mawaya to address an audience outside his stifling cell has been provided by the Canadian Coalition against the Death Penalty, a voluntary organisation. "We make webpages for death row prisoners anywhere in the world," says its director, Tracy Lamourie.

Zambia's death row inmates -- who presently number 304 -- are the first in Africa to use this opportunity to pour out grief, seek moral and financial assistance, and make friends beyond their prison walls. Just how they found out about the website, Lamourie does not know for certain. But one likely possibility is that the link was passed on during an internet Bible class run from churches in Britain.

"Now every week we are getting more requests. One prisoner will tell another saying 'These people have helped me get some friends and contacts in the outside world'," Lamourie says.

Mawaya, who is waiting for the appeal against his death sentence to be heard, gives away little about himself on his webpage. His first aim is to exchange opinions about the death penalty, executions, torture and Christianity.

Job Kasonda Kapita, a former police officer, tells every would-be pen pal right away why he was sentenced to death in 1994. "I shot and subsequently killed a violent suspicious suspect I wanted to arrest for disorderly conduct … all occurred within the station yard five metres from my office."

Behind bars he has become a writer, publishing poetry on his webpage.

Certain inmates use their pages to seek "assistance" as well as "mutual fellowship". Evans Fundula, 33, is one. "Before conviction, I was blessedly married with two children aged 14 years and 11 years, both girls," he explains. His wife left him when she heard of his sentence and now his family needs help to look after the children.

He also tells of the "injustice" of not having the money to hire a lawyer for his defence. "You are the bridge to us vulnerable…in this darkest and uncompromising place."

One of the most powerful of entreaties comes from Lewis Kalumba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the father of three daughters and a son, he writes. His wife has also left him and is now married to another man and living in a "far-away" town.

He needs money for his family to visit him: "I am a poor suffering soul. Reproach has broken my heart. I am full of heaviness."

Bishop Enocent Silwamba, executive director of the support organisation Prison Fellowship of Zambia, praises the websites for reducing the isolation and suffering on death row. There are six times more inmates in this prison than it was built for. They are shut away from the rest of the prison community. One has been on death row for 30 years, according to prison authorities.

It is highly unlikely that any of the inmates will be executed – at least as long as President Levy Mwanawasa is in office. He has pledged not to sign any death warrants, and has also indicated that he will soon commute all death sentences to life terms.

But until there is an amendment to the constitution, the courts will continue to condemn people to death -- and the webpages from death row to accumulate on the internet. (END/2007)

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