It was like the end of the world had come for the two brothers when they were sentenced to death by a Kisii court 25 years ago.
As they walked into prison, they both knew they were counting days before they faced the hangman’s noose, never to see their loved ones again.
However, they were to walk out of the prison gate over 22 years later, thanks to the Presidential Power of Mercy.
Stata Choi Keronche, 56, and his younger brother Francis Chweya, 50, were convicted of murdering their stepmother in mob justice over alleged witchcraft involvement, in 1992. They were then aged 35 and 29 years respectively.
For Keronche and Chweya, the first concern after walking out of prison in the year 2015 and 2014 respectively was whether they would fit back into the community after such a long duration of incarceration.
They felt that the environment had changed so much that they could hardly trace their homes or remember many members of their community.
Asked how life had been since they walked into freedom, Choi narrates his arrest and imprisonment avoiding his post incarceration experiences.
He recalls how he was arrested in 1993 just after clinching the Boikanga Ward seat as a councilor during the former President Moi’s regime. He was later sentenced to death by hanging a year later before he could serve the civic leadership term to the full.
After the sentence, Choi was moved from Kisii prison to various prisons including Kodiaga in Kisumu, Kamiti in Nairobi, Naivasha and Shimo la Tewa in coast where he says life was very difficult before the conditions were improved by former Vice President Moody Awori during the Kibaki era.
Having experienced life in prison before and after the transformative changes, Choi says the two sides are incomparable.
He notes that the current state is more habitable and the prison officers more humane thus motivating the convicts to develop a willing heart to change.
At their homes which are adjacent to each other, the two brothers are together most of the time in the company of other family members and a village elder.
Their bond is evident as they socialise easily although past memories a times trigger strong emotions causing them to shed tears.
The dual who hail from a family of six siblings explained how the Kibaki government changed their conviction from death to life sentence; however they feel it did not change their situation much.
They still felt psychologically hopeless knowing their whole life would be spent in jail.
To Choi, feelings of despair and being locked up with hardcore criminals although he was a first offender, was tormenting enough.
He appeals to authorities to reconsider jailing convicts separately; saying the current set up contributes to coaching of less hardened convicts by their hardened counterparts.
However, it was like a dream when I received news that President Uhuru Kenyatta had pardoned me and therefore I would walk to freedom which I had never imagined would happen again, Choi recalls.
Choi and Chweya say they received the good news with mixed feelings as they wondered how they would cope with the new life.
They expressed their gratitude to the Power of Mercy Committee (POMAC) which according to its mandate advised the President on the exercise of the power of mercy through which he pardoned them amongst other 102 convicts.
Choi was among the 102 life sentence prisoners who were released during the 52ndJamuhuri day celebrations although his brother was released under similar circumstances a year earlier.
Headed by the Attorney General, POMAC is a nine member committee which in conjunction with other agencies monitors released convicts, including, receiving routine progress in post release supervision and after care.
According to the committee Secretary Mr. Michael Kagika, the Kisii community had proved effective in welcoming back former convicts as compared to other regions where reintegration lacks effective support system which easily leads to relapse to crime.
During one of the monitoring programme events for pardoned ex-offenders at Kenyenya church in Kisii recently, Kagika indicated there were about 50,000 convicts in prison to date.
During the event which was planned in conjunction with probation and After care Service department, five post convicts including Choi and Chweya were in attendance flanked by family members, their church leaders and village elders among other members of the community who explained their acceptance and support in reintegrating them back to the community.
Nevertheless, to Kagika only a small portion of offenders end up in prison leaving majority of them mixing freely with the community.
The POMAC Committee term lapses after every five years; currently the term of two members has exspired.
According to Chweya’s son Douglas Mokebo, sentencing a parent for long duration in causes hopelessness to those detained and also affects the wellbeing of their children.
His father left him while he was only three months old after which he grew up under very difficult situation including perpetual absenteeism from school due to lack of school fees.
He says it was tormenting psychologically to know he had a father who was sentenced to hang although the conviction was later reduced to life sentence.
He recalls how he was sitting for exams when he learnt of his father’s release and dashed to the head teacher’s office to ask for permission to go and meet his dad out of prison for the first time.
Mokebo who completed his form four last year and acquired a grade ‘C’ plain says he could do anything for President Uhuru for setting his father free saying it had made him experience the love of a father just like other children.
His uncle Choi says that apart from finding their children all grown up, price of products had skyrocketed, cost of bread was no longer sh7 and neither a bottle of soda sh3 nor a kilo of sugar sh7 as it was before he went to prison.
People were also no longer using telegrams or call box through which they booked by help of an operator to make a call, but owned mobile phones through which they communicated and transferred money.
Choi also found his piece of land which was yet to be subdivided through procession encroached by neighbors while another portion he owned in Nyanza region was grabbed despite the fact that he had a title deed.
He appeals to the government to assist him get back his land as he fears to confront the grabber lest he is lynched after being labeled Kebago (criminal) now that he is a post convict.
Choi’s wife Esther Kerubo emotionally narrates how she almost ran mad as she tried to cope with challenges of bringing up four children without a father who was waiting to be hanged over murder convictions.
As she talks about the second born daughter who died leaving three orphans, she becomes hysterical and makes the whole family to shed a tear or two as they all recall in their own way what they went through then.
Choi calls for forgiveness and urges the government to educate Kenyans on the law saying ignorance was the main reason many are in prison for either petty crimes or crimes which could have been prevented.
The two brothers urged the government to pay prisoners some money during their release from prison for the hard labour they do in prison.
They say amnesty for those sentenced to less than one year and especially those perpetual petty offenders would reduce criminology, adding that the petty offenders know they will come out shortly and therefore do not fear committing similar crimes.
Choi also wants to be paid for the five years he was elected as Boikang’a ward area councilor in 1992 saying by-elections was not done after he was arrested and put in prison a year later.
I urge POMAC team to assist me get paid all the money allocated for the position since my seat was not declared vacant and nominations held as is required by law, he says.
They, like other post convicts, still trying to cope with the changes they found including the death of their mother, Mrs Robina Keronche who died while they were in prison, their grandmother and Choi’s daughter the late Linet Nyanduko who left three orphans.
The orphans who fully depend on him are both in lower primary classes while one is disabled and cannot do anything for herself.
The two post convicts depend on carpentry and tailoring skills learnt during incarceration which they say that combined with other menial jobs, has assisted them place food on the table for their families.
Their appeal to the government is that convicts be supplied with tools for the skills acquired in prison which to them will go a long way in assisting them become more productive members in the society.
Their father Zachariah Keronche, village elder Harrison Onchera, and younger brother Joseph Ocheku who is the ward PDP candidate express sheer gratitude to President Kenyatta for unifying their family again, and giving their children a chance to celebrate life of their parents.
POMAC committee member Catherine Iberia lauds President Kenyatta for being the first president to release such a high number of convicts to the community and urges the post convicts to maintain the good report from prison which led to their release.
Noting that criteria for mercy is total discipline to prison wardens, Iberia urges them to exercise patience saying impatience and anger makes people act wrong.
Isaiah Munyua, national Assistant Director of Probation services calls for community involvement in controlling crime so as to reduce the number of convicts and jails in the country.
Munyua’s advice to post convicts is to desist from regressing into crime especially during the campaign period which could land them in jail again.
Source: Kenya News Agency