Captain Itongwa Ngiringa Écho was tortured and sentenced to death for a crime he claims he never committed, after what the African Commission for Human Rights considers an unfair trial. On 16 January, 2001, Democratic Republic of Congo President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was murdered. Under pressure to find the culprits, the police arrested members of his guard. Itongwa—now 48 years old—was one of them. After spending 20 years on death row, he was pardoned in December 2020 and released in January 2021, thanks to measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Here, Itongwa tells us how he survived this traumatising experience.
How did you end up on death row?
I was a captain in President Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s guard when he was murdered. My comrades and I were immediately arrested and thrown in a basement. As I was the Captain of the Presidential Guard, they suspected I was involved in the murder or knew who was behind it. The guards asked me to write down the names of the perpetrators. They said: ‘you’re small fry, we want the person behind this.’ I couldn’t tell them anything, so they tied me up and beat me. By the time they left me, I could barely breathe. I didn’t know it then, but I would spend the next 20 years in jail.
Before being sent to prison, you were kept in a cell for three weeks. What happened there?
There were several of us in a small space, with no window or toilet, just a container we had to empty outside every couple of days. I was bleeding, but there was no bandage or disinfectant. After three weeks in this state, my health seriously deteriorated, and the guards feared I would die. They took me to the doctor, who asked for my transfer to Makala central prison.
How was life in prison?
I was kept in solitary confinement in an empty cell. I slept on the floor. My hands and feet were always tied. I couldn’t move or even wash. I began to smell so bad that the guards didn’t want to approach me. Thanks to the pressure of NGOs, my wife was allowed to visit me once. But I smelled and looked so awful that she couldn’t stand to be near me. I was left like that for six months before finally being allowed to wash.
A year after your arrest, your trial started. Can you tell us about it?
My comrades and I were allowed to leave our cells for the first time in a year. It was the first time since our arrest that we had seen our lawyers and our families. The trial lasted nine months, during which time I developed pneumonia in prison and had to be hospitalised for 21 days. The day before the verdict, the prosecutor picked 15 of my co-defendants and had them executed. It was a way to warn the rest of us: ‘Prepare yourselves; soon, it will be your turn.’ On 7 January 2003, I was sentenced to death with 30 other soldiers. When the judge made the announcement, the audience went into shock. The wives of those of us sentenced fell to the floor. Our lawyers started crying. Two days later, some soldiers told my wife they had just cut the grass where the executions were held and that they would kill me the next day.
But they didn’t…
No, and I remained in limbo for 20 years. I could have been executed at any time. It affected not only me but my friends and family, too. My mother wanted to see her son one last time, so in 2018 she travelled to Kinshasa—her church paid for her ticket. When she saw how I was living, she became so depressed that she passed away soon after her return home.
What gave you hope in all these years?
Soon after our trial, there was a moratorium on the death penalty in the DRC. We remained in prison but were no longer on death row—at least for the time being. But just as fast as a moratorium is approved, it can be cancelled. Some people in the government were campaigning to bring back the death sentence. A slight change in politics could mean the return of executions.
You were released in January 2021 following a series of measures to reduce prison overcrowding. How is life after 20 years on death row?
Since we were pardoned a year and a half ago, I have been living with my wife and children at her parents’ house. I have lost my home, but at least I still have my wife. I am lucky; some of my comrades’ partners have left them because of the long separation. In 20 years, many things change: the healthy husband you once had could now be suffering from all kinds of diseases. Some of my fellow inmates died because of their injuries. Most of us are struggling to make ends meet. We are afraid for our safety because we live side-by-side with the people who used to torture us. We have asked for protection but in vain. We are barely surviving.