Dead men speaking – voices from death row

21 Jan 2010

Condemned murderer, Gerald Dube, knew every detail of how he was going to be executed. When his date with the hangman finally arrived, prison officers came with a death warrant and led him away. His colleagues on death row, in Cell 10, heard everything that went on in the “death watch cell” and the execution chamber.

The death watch cell and the execution chamber – crudely named the slaughter house - are right next to Cell 10. Dube’s scrawled “letter to the editor” dated 21st November 2009, which he co-wrote with four other condemned inmates of Cell 10, leaves no doubt that they had been rehearsing the execution in their heads.

In one paragraph, the inmates capture in chilling details, the last 24 hours in the life of a death row inmate:
A few hours after nightfall, when the last prison lights have gone out and the only sound is the rustle of corrugated iron roofing and the chirping of night insects, the terror that envelopes Cell 10 seems closer and more palpable. Between the time prison officers come to take condemned inmate away, usually around 6 am, until the execution at 6 am the following morning, the inmates of Cell 10 listen in on every sound. “Somewhere at the back of your mind you know that your brother is being executed next door.

Every movement from the slaughter house can be heard very clearly in Cell 10. At night, prison warders sit through a night vigil, singing hymns the whole night. Just before 0600 am, there will be complete silence. And the hanging starts. You can imagine the emotional torture that comes with the whole process.”

The condemned men are only told of their fate as they are being led from their cells, 24 hours before the executions. Their families are given no advance warning and no opportunity for a final farewell. They wake up every morning knowing that this could be their last day. The arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal the execution in 24 hours. They live like this year after year.

“Our day starts at 0500 am, that is when Radio Botswana switches on, and so do the prison lights. 0600 hours, the cell is opened and the only movement we can do is shuffling around the courtyard. Between 0700 and 0730 we have our breakfast. Lunch is served between 12 00 Hrs and 1300 Hrs and supper between 15 00hrs and 1545hrs. At 17 00 hrs we are locked back into the cell. The routine continues until the day the hangman arrives,” says the letter.

Once the execution date has been set and the death warrant signed, the condemned man would be taken from Cell 10 to the “death watch” cell for the last 24 hours of his life. There, the condemned prisoner would literally be watched throughout every moment of the wait by guards in shifts.

The nearest the five inmates on death row (now reduced to four) come nearest to cracking up is when they talk about conditions inside Cell 10. They talk about the smell, rancid sweat, stale urine and faeces. “In between 17 00hrs and 0500hours we do not have access to the toilet. The only toilet available to us is in the courtyard. Once we are locked in our cell we can not access this toilet. When we need to relief ourselves, that is when we need to pee or worse, the only thing at our disposal is a bucket that can only be emptied the following morning. Remember there are five of us using a bucket for whatever relief and this has been going on for years. We are tired of raising this with prison officers who have all been turning a deaf ear.”

The inmates can not muster a polite way to describe the situation in Cell 10 and at times resort to language that can not be printed in a family newspaper like the Telegraph.

“When we complain, all we get from the officers is verbal abuse. We are reminded that we are on death row and have been condemned to death. We are reminded that we are condemned prisoners and that the Prison Department cannot waste government resources on condemned prisoners. The question we are asking ourselves is whether we forfeited our constitutional rights when we were sentenced to death?”

There are currently four death row inmates in Cell 10 at the Maximum Security Prison. That is where all death row inmates await their date with the hang man. At the time of writing the letter, there were five inmates in Cell 10. The fifth inmate, Zimbabwean Gerald Dube, was however hanged on 18th December 2009. Dube was sentenced to death after he was found guilty of murdering his Zimbabwean employer and her two children nine years ago.

Dube killed two children, a maid together with his employer who was his cousin in Francistown in 2001 but was hanged last December after the Botswana High Court passed the judgment in 2007.

Dube (36), who was employed by his cousin, Patricia Majoko, at her law firm as a file clerk and stayed with the family at their residence in Francistown, ran amok after she fired him from the job and he became embittered and murdered the four on September 13, 2001.

Dube murdered in cold blood, Majoko and her two sons, Amotjilani (5) and Dumisani (7) as well as the maid, Lindiwe Ncube.

He appealed against the High Court ruling, but the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling.

The death sentence was passed by the High Court in Francistown on June 14, 2007 after he was charged with four counts of murder.

Dube’s lawyer, Ookeditse Maphakwane, pleaded that his client suffered epileptic fits, which he held accountable for his behaviour on the day that he allegedly killed his relatives.

He said Dube suffered a fit on 7th September 2001 running on to “the following days”. Dube, however, would not go tamely to his death. As his day of execution approached, Dube and four other death row inmates smuggled out a letter to the Telegraph and Sunday Standard newspapers. Their message to authorities was that, “We may be voiceless, but there is need for change in prison conditions among death row inmates.”

Defence, Justice and Security Minister, Ramadeluka Seretse, confirmed that, “It is true Cell 10 does not have a toilet”. He, however, explained that the last time he visited the Maximum Security Prison, death row inmates had been moved from Cell 10 while prison warders were still building a toilet inside Cell 10.

The Minister told The Telegraph that death row inmates should be treated like all other inmates and promised to investigate the allegations of verbal abuse and inhuman treatment against Cell 10 inmates.