“Condemned to Die or Condemned to Wait” by Johanna Addison

“We can’t take you to see the condemned prisoners because they’re never visited and when they hear loud footsteps they think they’re about to be taken away to be killed

Upon my first visit to a Ghanaian prison, the officer who took us on the tour made a statement that resounded in my ears during the tour and lingered further on in my heart even after we had returned to school. I’ve procrastinated and convinced myself several times that I lacked sufficient information on this topic, but the news of a documentary by Seth Kwame Boateng of Joy News on the very same matter has left me so haunted that I had no option but to put finger to keyboard. So today I write this post with the hope that it plays a part, no matter how little, in the butterfly effect that will eventually result in the end of inactivity relating to the people whose lives depend on this topic, literally.

Since 1993, Presidents of Ghana have failed to comply with Section 309 (1) of Act 30 which requires them to give final approval in the form of a seal for execution of individuals, and with the combination of a backlog of cases, lack of advanced forensic technology, inability of accused persons to access legal aid and the insufficiency staff of the Attorney General’s Department, their failure to fulfill their responsibilities might just be a blessing in disguise.

I’M NOT ASKING FOR THEM TO BE EXECUTED

If for some strange reason you’re getting the idea that this post is demanding the execution of the sentences these individuals have been given by our courts, then no, it’s not. The aim is to ask for certainty in sentence, and in doing so, free the individuals in such situations from the constant mental and psychological torture.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners is one of the leading documents which recommends principles and practices regarding the treatment of prisoners.  Rule 7(c) states that upon admission of every prisoner, information relating to the day and hour of admission and release shall be entered into the prisoner file management system. Therefore if we are to apply this recommendation to individuals facing the death sentence, there should also be a confirmed date and hour of release, which in this context would mean their execution, but from all indicators there is no willingness to carry this out. People have argued that it can therefore be inferred that their sentences have been converted to life sentences; however the risk in making such an assumption is honestly unfair to the true victims of the system. Giving these individuals such hope and disregarding the possibility of a newly-elected President actually signing the death warrants upon his coming into power is both reckless and inconsiderate.  Secondly, due to their sentences not actually being converted to life sentences in accordance with the laws of Ghana, the possibility of having their sentences commuted to definite terms is far-fetched. 

It would be easy to suggest that the President grant clemency in accordance with Article 72 of the 1992 Constitution to all prisoners on death row, thereby converting their sentences to life imprisonment. That would be too temporary a solution, as individuals are sentenced to death daily, meaning in a few years we’d be back to square one, back to facing such a situation, and back to appealing to the current President to grant them clemency. The best solution would be to tackle the problem from the root, namely the particular law(s) that provide(s) the legal basis for the infliction of such a punishment for a criminal offence, with the ringleaders being Article 13 of our constitution and Section 294 of Act 30. The Constitutional Review Commission in December 2011 recommended that this provision be abolished in the new constitution and replaced with life imprisonment without parole, but the situation remains the same.

In the case of Dexter E. Johnson v. The Republic, the Court failed to accept the objection raised to the mandatory death sentence under the constitution, claiming it was the duty of the lawmakers to first amend the related laws and have continued to mete out the sentence. Article 289 under chapter 25 of the Constitution provides for constitutional amendment through an Act of Parliament, with Articles 290-292 providing further information on the topic. Therefore it appears that the responsibility currently lies on the legislature to ensure this matter is addressed.

Imagine knowing you’re destined to die, but not knowing on which day or at what hour. Imagine living in so much suspense and waiting indefinitely in fear that any day might be your last, to the extent that hearing footsteps come your way causes your heartbeat to double in pace. Slowly the days turn to months, and then years, and then decades, but you just waste away, waiting for the death that never comes.

This topic isn’t new to me, and I doubt that it is to you. So much has been said, but so little done and just maybe, until we make the appropriate changes in law, we should forget the term “sentenced to death”, and replace it with “sentenced to wait”.