Contrary to idle rumour that the post of executioner in Botswana’s prisons has not been localised, parliament was last Tuesday told that the country has its own hangmen.
“There are officials who execute court orders relating to prisoners sentenced to death. The procedure for execution is laid down in the Prison’s Act,” said Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Peter Siele, when answering a parliamentary question from Gaborone South MP, Akanyang Magama.
In his question, Magama used the word “hangmen” but in his response Siele steered clear of the term. He referred to the executioners only as prison officers and the hanging as “execution of court orders.”
Siele went on a nationwide tour of prisons last year, holding meetings with prison officers with the press attending. At one prison, a female officer lamented about having to participate in the execution of death row inmates that they would have a bond with. Picking up on that point, Magama asked the minister if he did not consider it traumatic for warders “whose core business is to rehabilitate prisoners, to again be called upon to execute them”.
Siele’s response was that while “some” prison officers get traumatised by having to execute prisoners, the Department of Prisons and rehabilitation has a continuous counselling programme for officials who are involved in the execution of the court orders.
If the execution is tough on prison officers, it must be tougher on doctors who take an oath to preserve life but have to attend executions to ensure that life is taken away. In terms of the Prisons Act, medical officers are among a list of people who are obliged to attend an execution. After the execution of the death sentence, the medical officer examines the body, ascertains death and signs a certificate to confirm that.
The execution of a prisoner occurs after the officer in charge of a prison receives a warrant signed by the president in his own hand. The warrant specifies the time of execution as well as people who will attend. The officer in charge notifies the prisoner not less than 24 hours before the time of execution and advises the prisoner to give instructions regarding the disposal of his/her property.
The execution itself is attended by the condemned prisoner, the officer in charge, a medical officer or a medical practitioner in his place and prison officers, as the Commissioner of Prisons or the officer in charge may require. It may also be attended by a minister of religion and other people that the minister may authorise.
After the execution of the sentence and the signing of the death certificate by both the medical officer and the Officer in Charge, the body of the executed prisoner is buried in the grounds of the prison “in such manner as the minister may require”.
The Act further says that failure to comply with the process as laid out “shall not make the execution of judgment of death illegal in any case where such execution would otherwise have been legal”.
Since gaining independence from the British, Botswana has executed 39 people, three of them women and one white. No president has ever commuted any death sentence in exercise of their prerogative of mercy.