By DAVID MUGONYI
and MUGO NJERU
President Mwai Kibaki today pardoned 28 deathrow prisoners who had served between 15 and 21 years.
All the prisoners who were immediately released from jail, had had their appeals against sentence dismissed and were awaiting hanging.
President Kibaki also commuted the death sentence for 195 other deathrow convicts who will now serve life imprisonment.
"In the spirit of reforms, the President yesterday (Monday) signed an order where 28 death row prisoners whose sentences were commuted to life imprisonment be freed because they had already served up to 20 years," Home Affairs Minister Moody Awori told the Press in his office in Nairobi.
He said those who will now serve life sentences have been transferred to Naivasha, Shimo La Tewa and Mandera prisons among others.
Mr Awori said his ministry was working with the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to study offences of certain inmates with a view of freeing some. This, he added, will help reduce congestion, prevent the spread of epidemics and thereby limit other vices.
He said the 28 prisoners were traumatised each day of their lives as they did not know whether their hanging day had reached or not. "They had never seen the sun or the sky, today their lives have changed," Mr Awori said.
The group will now have an opportunity to see the light of day for the first time. They were confined in total darkness everyday, 11 of them crowded in a room meant for three.
Those who were released, left the Kamiti Maximun Prison, Nairobi, yesterday morning for their homes. Nineteen were convicted for robbery with violence while nine faced murder charges.
However, three of them Paul Wamiti, 40, Gibson Njau Githaria, 56 and George Karanja Mwangi, 48 found their way to the Nation Centre, Nairobi, and narrated their ordeal.
The three were overjoyed by their release and said "we feel like born again and would like to thank the President and his minister".
The group was said to have shown reformist behaviour and can now rejoin the society.
Those to serve life imprisonment were transferred to various prisons throughout the country, Mr Awori said. However, more than 1,500 others who have challenged the sentences in court are awaiting completion of their cases.
Recently, Mr Awori visited prisoners and warders and was perturbed by the living conditions. He promised prisoners television sets and radios and delivered them last week.
The minister said the government would make the places habitable by building more prisons and staff houses for warders to reduce congestion.
Commissioner of Prisons Abraham Kamakil who accompanied the minister said, the gesture by President Kibaki was the biggest In Kenya's history.
"This is a historic event for the 34 years I have served in the department, I have never seen anything like this...it is a good step towards rehabilitation.
Mr Kamakil appealed to Parliament to abolish the death sentence as it had claimed innocent lives.
"We are longing for the day Parliament will remove the death penalty from our Constitution. Sometimes many people are hanged for wrong reasons," he said.
Mr Awori said the Kibaki government had decided to empower ministers reform their ministries
"The President decided a style of government where he gave full responsibility to his ministers."
He said reforms will be hurried to make lives of both prisoners and warders comfortable.
In the Kenyan law, death penalty covers crimes of murder and robbery with violence.
Moves to outlaw capital punishment have failed twice in the past eight years, in 1994 and 2000.
Imenti South Minister Kiraitu Murungi-now Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs-moved a motion in Parliament to abolish the death penalty. In both instances, then ruling party rallied its forces to defeat the motions.
Some MPs, during the 1994 motion, argued that abolishing capital punishment was tantamount to "licensing murder".
The last hanging was in 1987, when the 1982 coup plotters Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu were court-martialled to the gallows. Since then about 2,000 Kenyans have been placed on the death row, but inexplicably, none has been hanged.
Official documents show that 1,925 inmates were on death row as of January 5, 2001. Of this,1,777 were waiting for their appeals to be heard, only 146 had their petitions finalised and awaited execution.
Of the 3,584 Kenyans convicted of capital offence-murder and robbery with violence-between 1963 and 1987, only 280 have been hanged. Within the period, 1,755 had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
The death sentence as relates to robbery with violence was legislated 30 years ago.