Three days later, Susan and Patience were arrested. Herbert, Constantino’s son from an earlier relationship, had given a daring statement accusing them of murdering his father. Susan herself claims that her in-laws, with whom she had a troublesome relationship, played a dark part in all of this. The key witness was three years old at the time of the murder. Two years later, in a courtroom in Ugandan capital Kampala, the now five-year-old toddler stated that his stepmother, Susan, had cut her husband’s throat with a machete while their housekeeper, Patience, held his legs. She was tried without a lawyer; she couldn’t afford one. Murder. That was what the judge, on September 11, 2002, found her guilty of. In Uganda, murderers were automatically sentenced to death. As such, the judge had no choice but to sentence her to the country’s standard execution method: the gallows.

Luzira Women's Prison. © Jan Banning
International implications

I came upon Susan Kigula’s story in 2010 when I was preparing for my first trip to Uganda for my Law & Order project, a photographic study of criminal law in four different countries. Upon arriving in Kampala, I requested the bulky collection of procedural documents, expecting that they would confirm my impression of a flawed criminal justice system. However, once I went through all the files, I found myself, much to my surprise, seriously doubting. Seeing the evidence presented in the courtroom, I might have judged her as guilty myself. At the same time, it was, of course, strange that there was no mention of a possible motive. I also did not find any evidence that pointed towards marital struggles. Later, it became clear that simply no exculpatory evidence had been presented, which was logical, seeing that Susan had no lawyer. However, I was unaware of this when reading the files for the first time. To the present day, Susan has always passionately claimed to be innocent, and I, too, am convinced of this by now.

Susan Kigula in Luzira Woman's Prison in 2010. © Jan Banning
In the meantime, Susan had become Uganda’s most famous prisoner after being the face of a landmark court case: Susan Kigula and 417 others against the State of Uganda. In this case, supported by the Death Penalty Project1, she demanded a few radical amendments to the law, most notably the abolition of the death penalty. On the 21st of January 2009, the Supreme Court made its decision public: the death sentence would not be abolished. However, the Court also ruled that keeping prisoners who were sentenced to death on Death Row for years and years—after all, the last time someone was actually executed in Uganda was in March of the year 2003—was a manner of torture. From then on, a death sentence would automatically be converted to a life sentence after three years ondeath row. On top of this, the death sentence was no longer mandatory when someone was found guilty of murder. Thanks to Susan’s initiative, the hundreds of court cases of all prisoners with a death sentence now had to be reevaluated: judges were able to, retroactively, take mitigating circumstances into account. Since then, almost all of these prisoners have been released after their death sentences were converted to life sentences (which, in Uganda, until recently, meant 20 years). The case had international implications: it played an important part in the abolishing of the mandatory death sentence for murder in the neighboring country, Kenya.
Susan Kigula in Luzira Woman's Prison in 2010. © Jan Banning
Studying under a tree
Susan Kigula was imprisoned in the women’s section of Luzira Prison, on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. After reading all those procedural documents, I wanted to meet her in person. I was surprised by how easy it was to get permission. Susan turned out to be a bright, intelligent, and warm woman, and we immediately felt connected to each other. In 2008, after Susan heard that secondary education was available in the men’s section of Luzira Prison, she managed to get permission to establish her own school in the women’s prison. The open-minded head of the Ugandan prison system, Johnson Byabashaija, supported her: ‘I want to transform our prisons from penal institutions to corrective institutions,’ he said. She received course books from family members and from the men’s prison, and with four others, she started studying under a tree. One year later, all five students passed the final exams of secondary school, after which they continued to teach others.2 After this, Susan met a British lawyer, Alexander McLean, who had committed himself to improving conditions in Ugandan prisons. He convinced her to start studying law, and he made it possible for her to begin a correspondence study at the University of London in 2011. She was the only female prisoner in Uganda who participated in academic education and soon found herself aiding other prisoners, as well as guards, with legal advice.
English lessons in Luzira Women's Prison. © Jan Banning

On November 11, 2011, a few months before we would meet for the first time, Susan Kigula found herself in front of a judge once again. The hearing was very emotional, and she was in tears when she asked her stepson, Herbert, and her inlaws, albeit in vain, for reconciliation. However, her sentence was reduced to twenty years. Her housekeeper, Patience, received sixteen years. When I returned to the women’s prison in 2013, I found Susan with a stack of books at a table in a quiet corner. Her mood was great; her studies were going well, and in three years, she expected to be released early thanks to her good behavior. After that, she wanted to commit herself to improving human rights: ‘A lot of people end up in prison because they cannot pay a lawyer. I want to come
out of here like an educated woman, so I will be able to fight for the rights of the underprivileged.’ Photos in the media show that, for an interim undergraduate graduation ceremony, the prison organized a party – giant cake included – for her and two male prisoners. The three cut the cake together with a beaming prison warden, Johnson Byabashija.

Undergraduate degree
On April 27, 2016, early in the morning, I found an email in my inbox: ‘Hi, Jan, this is Susan Kigula. I am out of prison, and I decided to contact you.’ On a rainy morning in January, after sixteen years in prison, a female guard had escorted her to the exit, sheltering her from the rain with an umbrella. A few months later, she returned to Luzira prison—but only to receive her undergraduate degree, as one of her two fellow students was still in prison. As part of the festivities, they organized a TEDx event with international speakers and a big reception at Kampala’s Sheraton hotel. Susan now lives with her sister and her own and Constantino’s daughter, Leticia, who was raised by her parents. She works for the African Prison Project4, founded by McLean. She gives passionate lectures about hope and individual growth, as well as providing legal advice to prisoners. She is also working on the world’s first solicitor’s office that is run entirely from behind bars, enabling imprisoned lawyers to help poverty-stricken fellow prisoners with legal aid. Now 38 years old, the former shopkeeper has traveled to, among others, Italy, Norway, Gambia, and Romania since her release, where she held lectures at international conferences about the death penalty. In Paris, she met a former French minister of Foreign Affairs, and in Sweden, she held a lecture on the fate of prisoners’ children. However, maybe most beautiful of all was the ‘Citizen Hero’ rap that the controversial musical news program, Newz Beat – popular amongst youngsters – presented on Ugandan television in her honor.

On October 13, 2018, Susan Kigula also gave a lecture in Zephyr, (Reiss-Engelhorn-
Museen), Mannheim, where Jan Banning’s Law&Order is exhibited until January 6,

more about Susan Kigula

You can hear Susan herself here