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Aron John, former death row prisoner, regains freedom after 16 years in prison in Malawi

  • News
  • 8 Jul 2019

In 2007, Malawi joined the majority of the world’s nations in rejecting the mandatory death penalty.

In the landmark case of Kafantayeni v Attorney General, the High Court declared that automatically imposing a death sentence without any consideration of the individual circumstances of the offence or the offender violates fundamental constitutional protections. It amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment and, by denying judicial discretion on sentencing, it also violated the right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court approved the High Court’s decision that the mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional in Twoboy Jacob v Republic and in Yassin v Republic, it ordered that all murder convicts who had already been sentenced to the mandatory death penalty should be resentenced. This applied not only to the surviving Plaintiffs in Kafantayani, including Aron John, but also to all the prisoners who had been sentenced to the mandatory death penalty, even if their mandatory sentences had subsequently been commuted to life imprisonment – some 190 prisoners.

The sentence rehearings took place between 2015-2017 and Aron was one of the first prisoners to be resentenced. In 2015, he was sentenced to a term of 24 years imprisonment, taking into account the time he had served on death row and other mitigating evidence, including psychiatric evidence and character witness evidence. His co-accused, Tony Thobowa, a juvenile at the time of arrest, was also sentenced to a term of 24 years imprisonment. Tony was released in 2016.

Aron spent a total of 16 years in prison, 10 of which were on death row. Click here to read more about Aron’s story.

Upon his release on Saturday, Aron describes his joy:

“I feel good and excited. I know very well that 6th July is Independence Day in Malawi, but this year’s Independence Day will always be different from the rest because it is the day that I regained my freedom. It is a very special day and I will never forget it. Finally, I am going home again. The view is just very nice. For years I haven’t seen the outside world. Today is like a resurrection day. I am starting life again. It has been a long time since I saw the outside world. Now I can walk free. It is unbelievable. Even my family won’t believe this is happening. I am very happy. It is a very special day for me.”

Watch as Aron John steps out of prison for the first time in 16 years.

Click here to read more about Aron’s story

Notes to Editors

Working with the Malawi Human Rights Commission and local lawyers, we co-ordinated the Kafantayeni challenge to the mandatory death penalty and represented four of the six original plaintiffs in their re-sentencing hearings. Regrettably two of the Plaintiffs died at Zomba prison before they were resentenced.

The Malawi Capital Resentencing Project was launched in 2014 to assist more than 150 prisoners with the re-sentencing process and to address the many challenges they faced. The outcome and judgments convey a remarkable judicial achievement and collaboration between various organisations and individuals. To date, the courts have held over 158 resentencing hearings and 138 prisoners have been released. In 112 cases, the new sentences resulted in the prisoners’ immediate release. Many others like Aron John have completed their sentences and have also been released. Not one prisoner has been re-sentenced to death and in only one case was a prisoner resentenced to life imprisonment.

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