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DEATH PENALTY: Freed From Death Row, Botswana Man Recounts His Tale

Bester Gabotlale

MAISANE, Botswana, Jun 1 2006 (IPS) - Maokaneng Makolong has witnessed much in his 75 years of life, but two events will stay in his mind forever.

The first was in September 2002 when a judge told him: “You will hang by your neck until you die.”

Makolong, a traditional healer, someone who had devoted himself to curing and restoring life, had been found guilty of ending one.

“I thought it was a big joke when I heard that. I had no feelings,” he says in an interview at his home village in Maisane, about 20 kilometres from the southern town of Lobatse, the seat of the country’s highest court where his fate was sealed.

The other event, one Makolong prefers to dwell on, occurred July 25, 2003 when a second judge set him free. He was acquitted on appeal after spending 10 months on death row.

“It was like a dream when the prison warders put me in the bus and told me I could go home. I didn’t have any idea I could find home,” he says.

During his stay in prison, Makolong says he would have ended his life were he not in the hands of the warders. “I said to myself it would have been better if God had taken my life instead of what I am going through,” he says, trying to hold back his emotions.

“I had no sleep and I even fell sick with high blood pressure and was hospitalised for two weeks,” he says. During his stay at the hospital, gun-toting guards kept watch over him 24 hours a day.

The healthy, tall Makolong who seems intent on defying his age is hesitant to talk about his ordeal. He drinks a few cans of Castle Lager before settling under a tree where we chat. We are often interrupted by a handful of people who come around, curious to hear his story.

The first days home were terrible for him. He was haunted by hallucinations and every time a dog barked at night he would wake up.

Maisane is a small village, with slightly more than a thousand people. Almost everybody in the village knows Makolong and knows of his story.

“I love people here. Nobody castigates me and as a traditional doctor, people come here in droves from all over the country. Nobody says a thing (about the case). It all ended there,” he says.

He shared his cramped prison cell with four other death row inmates, including Lehlohonolo Kobedi, a black South African convicted of the murder of a police sergeant and Douglas Simon, with whom he had been convicted for the murder of George Chabe.

Chabe died of malachite green poisoning, a toxic medicine, which the state said Makolong had provided to Simon. Throughout the trial, Makolong maintained that he had given Simon two other traditional herbs, Thonya and Maleko, which were to be used to cement a relationship.

Each day started badly for the death row inmates; for them every dawn could be the day they would die. The cell was small and there was very little for them to do but think about impending death. Occasionally voices from outside would waft through, otherwise their life was characterised by silence, prayer, singing of hymns, moaning and groaning.

Things got worse when the sun set, he said. “We would pray and cry,” he says as if confessing his own weakness.

Unlike the other people serving their sentences at the prison, the death row prisoners never ran short of food. Whatever food they wanted was brought to them, he says. There was also a hot shower, which they could use as often as they wished.

On July 18, 2003 early in the morning, their worst fears were confirmed when one of them, Lehlohonolo Kobedi, was led to the death chamber and hanged.

On that day, he says, a dark cloud hung over them.

“I got cold. I had no hope at all,” he says.

A week after Kobedi’s execution, the court acquitted Makolong of murder; but his other death row inmates were not as lucky.

The rest – Douglas Simon (his co-accused), Gouwane Tsae and Joseph Makhobo – were hanged together September 19, 2003.

The landlocked southern African country has hanged 39 people since gaining independence in 1966. It has a policy of executing quickly so few people sit on death row long. It is one of 35 African nations which still retains and uses the death penalty.

Before his case, Makolong confesses that he never thought about the death penalty.

“I saw it myself (the death penalty),” he says with pain written all over his face. “It’s terrible, I think the government must find another way of punishment – not hanging.”

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