KAMPALA, Uganda — Edward “EdMary” Mpagi was arrested by Ugandan authorities in 1981 for robbery and murder of a rival family member. In 1982, he was convicted in court and sentenced to death.
The only problem: He didn’t commit the crime. The man who he was convicted of murdering was alive and well. His family bribed a local doctor to falsify a death certificate, coerced people into falsely testifying against Mpagi and fabricated evidence. It wasn’t until 18 years later — 18 years on Uganda’s death row — that this was discovered.
Since then, Mpagi has been a staunch campaigner against the death penalty in Africa, where 18 countries have abolished it. He was interviewed recently by Register correspondent Sister Grace Candiru from his home in Kampala.
Can you tell us the story of when and why you were arrested?
I was arrested in June 1981, at the age of 26 years. It happened that a robbery had taken place in our neighborhood, where a shop was broken into and the owner stabbed in the stomach. Although the man was robbed, he was not killed; but because of the grudge his family had with us, my family was implicated.
To my surprise, the police came to our home and arrested five of us. I was arrested along with my father, uncle, stepmother and my younger cousin. We remained in police cells for two weeks, and it was at this time that my father, uncle and his wife were released.
Later, my cousin and I were produced in court and charged with aggravated robbery and murder. And on April 29, 1982, we were sentenced to death and were transferred to Luzira Maximum Prison in the condemned section.
Yet, at this point, it was clear that the man who was allegedly killed was alive, and he even attended the court session. The man, later on, disappeared from the scene, until 2000, when it became publicly known that he is the man who was allegedly murdered.
What was your reaction when you were sentenced to death?
When the judge pronounced the guilty verdict and sentenced us to death, we were perturbed. My cousin, who was my co-accused, was especially bitter and asked, “If God is really there, why are we sentenced to death innocently?”
After a year on death row, we appealed, but the court of appeal upheld our sentence. From then on, we knew there was nothing we could do and that we were going to die, as the law says. I later wrote a petition to the president for a prerogative of mercy. It was at this time that a committee investigating my innocence went to my home village. They asked about my general behavior, etc. The committee learned that the man I was accused of killing was alive, but I did not receive any immediate response.
After our sentence, I immediately developed [high blood] pressure, while my cousin died three years later in 1985, after developing diarrhea and malaria.
What kept you going in prison?
When the court of appeal upheld our sentence, I realized what remained for me was to commit my life to God through prayer. I am grateful that several pastoral agents, among them Franciscan Sister Olive and Comboni Missionary priest Father Tarcisio Agostoni, constantly visited us.
During their visits, they counseled and prayed with us. They also provided us with other needs, such as Bibles, religious books, soap, etc. The Italian Comboni missionary provided mattresses, beds and blankets for all the prisoners, although the beds were not given to us.
It was in 1989 that Father Agostoni started his anti-death-penalty campaign. I recalled him angrily remarking during one of his sermons that he does not come to the prison to preach to people who are preparing for death, but for people who must come out of prison as good people. The priest many times used his personal money to get lawyers for prisoners who could not afford them.
How did you spend your free time in prison?
I spent much of my time in prayer, because I knew then that it was only God who could save me. I also started teaching others how to read and write, so that they could read the Bible. The reading and writing classes that I started later developed into a formal school from primary [grades] to university [classes]. The students sit for examinations set by the Uganda National Examinations Board.
I also created a library with books and pamphlets I got from priests and nuns who visited us.
What is your opinion of Uganda’s justice system?
Our justice system is plagued with corruption, poor inquiry/investigation and grudges. If somebody has a grudge against you, and he or she has money, you can be wrongly arrested and charged for a crime you have not committed.
A fellow inmate of mine was wrongfully executed in 1999 for allegedly killing someone. The man he was accused of killing had joined the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony. After many years in the rebel ranks, he returned, but it was too late: The prisoner had already been executed.
Before going to prison, you were a taxi driver. Why did you change your job to become a catechist?
I had made a commitment with God while still in prison. I had vowed that if God rescued me from death, I would serve him for the rest of my life. When I was released from prison, I got many job offers. In fact, one of the job offers was from my younger brother; and in the few weeks I worked [at that job], I made a lot of money; but I opted to train as a catechist. The Franciscan nuns who journeyed with me while in prison offered to sponsor me for the two-year course.
Have you ever sought redress from the Ugandan government for wrongful imprisonment?
I simply forgave them, and I want to appeal to all Ugandans to have the heart of forgiveness. I also wanted to reconcile and forgive the man I was accused of killing, but he died while I was still [working] for my catechetical training. But all the same, I forgave him from my heart.
After being set free, how did it feel walking out of the prison gate?
It was not easy to believe that I was finally free, until I passed through the main prison gate. I was set free very early in the morning, but it was after 17 hours that I was let out of the prison gate.
Outside the prison gate, I was like a child. After nearly 20 years in prison (I was arrested in June 1981 and released on July 29, 2000), everything had changed. Those I left very young had grown old. I did not know where to find my relatives, and none of them was aware of my release. It was one of the prison wardens who took me to my younger brother’s home.
What encourages you to continue with your prison ministry, despite your health condition?
First of all, it was in 2011 that I suffered a stroke during a workshop for catechists of the Kampala Archdiocese. The stroke resulted in a loss of memory and paralysis of my right side.
I was head catechist in one of the parishes, but now I am not able to do my work. But I am still a member of the executive board of the catechists.
As to what encourages me in my ministry, I want prisoners to heal from the pain they suffer in prison. I share with them my personal story and encourage them to keep trusting in God. I also share with them the word of God, give general counseling and encourage them to commit themselves to God; I do this twice a week. And when I get material things like soap, toothpaste and dresses, I also take [those things] to them.
There are many prisoners inside there who are innocent, and I call upon Ugandans to be godfathers and mothers and visit them. During executions, I have heard a person crying, “I am dying, but I am innocent.” Then there are many who have overstayed there, and they don’t have anyone visiting them.
Is there any other mission you are involved in?
Apart from my pastoral ministry, another major mission I am involved in is the anti-death-penalty campaign. My wish is that the Ugandan government scrubs off the death penalty from its constitution. Although the last executions took place in 1999, it might be done again, since it is still provided for in the constitution.
But I am grateful to the Ugandan government for halting executions, and I hope that the death penalty is abolished and scrubbed off the Ugandan constitution. God never told anyone to kill another.
Sister Grace Candiru,
of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church,
writes from Kampala, Uganda.