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Interview: Canaan Nkamuhabwa, legal trainee

05 January 2024

‘I was arrested, tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to death — all in one day’

Justice Defenders

I am a lawyer, which was my childhood wish, but I first graduated as a social worker. I am the second child born of eight children to two peasant farmers. I grew up in a big traditional African family in Uganda.

I have five brothers and two sisters.
My third sister died last year, may her soul rest in peace. Two of the five brothers — our eldest and the one that follows me — take care of the farm now, after our father. My other two brothers are younger. One is doing electrical engineering and the youngest one studies cyber security and networking engineering.

Our farm is about 300 acres with about 100 cows.
We keep the local Ankole long-horned cattle breeds, and a few Friesian ones. I personally love the long-horned traditional breeds a lot for their beauty. They are also large breeds and give very tasty milk. I grew up taking care of cows, and I always feel happiest on the farm when I am not at my work.

Now I work with Justice Defenders at the Kampala head office.

I get to the office by 8 a.m.
I read my emails first, and start clearing my to-do list, which normally includes seeing clients in prisons, drafting different legal documents, and so on. I leave the office between 4 and 5 p.m. I often end my day with a church service at about 8 p.m.

I came to get involved with Justice Defenders in prison as an inmate paralegal,
after successfully making it on the final list for the University of London LLB programme.

Studying law in prison was as challenging as it was interesting.
It was challenging for obvious reasons: I had to work without direct access to the internet, without a library, and without teachers or professors. Yet my study was so interesting that I learnt by working on people’s cases in prison.

I remember people started calling me “Counsel” when I was just in my first year of the course.
This pushed me to be better at both my studies and my work as an inmate paralegal. I graduated in just three years and with 2.1 Honours.

I was a soldier,
but I was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder, and sentenced to suffer death by the court martial — all in one day.

I loved soldiers as a teenager,
for their discipline and honour and duty to serve their nation. I would enjoy watching military movies, too. After I graduated as a social worker, there was a call for applicants to join, and I immediately applied.

I trained and qualified to join the elite Special Forces Command that guards the president,
international diplomats, and VIPs. It was a big honour to serve my country in that capacity, and I learnt a lot from the experience.

I successfully appealed against the conviction of murder and the death sentence after one year on the death row,
and got released after four years and six months, in March 2022.

Justice Defenders helped me with legal education on the death row with their legal knowledge,
and used it to challenge my unfair conviction and sentence.

They want to help the many men, women, and children who are being held in prisons without a trial.
Many people here are in prison just because they are poor and cannot pay their rent. Some of them are mentally ill, or have drug problems. Sometimes they are in prison because they didn’t pay a bribe to someone. Now they are in prison, they have no money to pay lawyers to help them to get out, or if they come to a trial, they have no one to defend them, when they could have a less serious sentence from the judge.

Justice Defenders trains people in prison, and prison officers, in the law and to defend themselves and others.
Prisons shouldn’t be full of poor people who can’t defend themselves or pay a proper lawyer to defend them. Do you know what Oscar Romero said? “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” When you have been in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, or because you were too poor to get out, you really want to give other people the best legal defence that you didn’t have.

Most of us were not the sort of children who you might expect to study law,
but it is good that people in prison can study law, as well as the people who are making laws and putting men and women in prison. Thanks to Justice Defenders, we can work with other people who need someone to defend them and who have no money to pay them.

One of the people they trained in Uganda petitioned the government to abolish the mandatory death penalty for capital crimes;
and there have been good changes in Kenya, too. A Justice Defenders team there stopped people with mental illness from being sent to prison, and stopped mandatory sentences for some crimes, so that judges can decide what is the best sentence for people who have done something wrong.

The most difficult moment of my life was when I lost my sister last year,
the person who supported me so much during my days of incarceration. I was so devastated by her death. She had just helped me escape execution by hanging, and I thought we would live longer together to enjoy that milestone.

Two things have really surprised me in my work.
One is the relationship of the Bible and the Early Church writings with the law as it is known today. The other is the amount of protection the law actually provides to a person charged of a criminal offence, such as human rights, and the procedures meant to ensure justice and that only the guilty are convicted, but which, for lack of proper legal advice, people in incarceration do not even know about. If such information was actually known, many people would not be in prison in Uganda.

The most rewarding thing in my work is my ability to restore hope to people without hope.
That gives me satisfaction no money can give.

I have helped so many in the last five years,
but I am most proud of the people who committed crimes while they were not in their proper mental well-being, who had been almost forgotten in the criminal-justice system. They had waited the longest on remand. One man had been in prison for 23 years without trial. We petitioned parliament last year, and, out of 30 people, only six are still in prison now, just waiting for some paperwork to be completed.

My first real experience of God was in prison after being sentenced to death.
It is a long story, but to say the least, I saw God come down to my rescue.

I am now a minister at my local church, and I am looking forward to growing more there.

I used to get angry at anything, but all that changed drastically.
I now hardly get angry, actually, but I don’t like dishonesty in humans and in systems.

Time with my family, on the farm makes me happiest.
And time at church.

The fact that “Jesus is Lord” means everything to me.
Those words are the best sound to me.

Faith is what gives me hope for the future.

I especially pray for wisdom, long life, and personal growth.
I pray for the body of Christ in general, too.

Prison taught me the power of faith,
when things are really bad. So, I would use the faith of Abraham a lot if I were locked up in a place of worship — not only to keep hopeful, but to keep my cool and stay happy with God at such a hard time.

Canaan Nkamuhabwa was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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