Democratic Republic of Congo

‘Psychologically, I am no longer human’ – life after 20 years on death row in the DRC

Tortured and sentenced to death for a crime he never committed, Lieutenant Richard Yav never recovered psychologically from the death row experience.

On January 16, 2001, the Democratic Republic of Congo President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was murdered. Under pressure to find the culprits, the police arrested members of his personal guard. Lieutenant Richard Yav was among them. Richard was tortured and sentenced to death for a crime he never committed, after what the African Commission for Human Rights considers a rigged trial. The 61-year old soldier was released in 2021 thanks to measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, after spending 20 years on death row.

Here, he tells us how this traumatising experience still affects his life.

What was it like in prison?

I was locked up in a cell with no windows, so I didn’t see the light of day for 20 years. If I wanted to use the toilet, I had to ask, but the guards would sometimes refuse. I didn’t receive any food—I only ate thanks to my friends and family who came to drop off meals for me. Prison here is not like in Europe. In the DRC, prisons are places of death.

What kept you going?

My comrades and I hoped that someone would realise we were innocent and that the State would pardon us. That almost happened several times. An amnesty law was signed in 2003, meaning we would be released. But the government changed, so we stayed in jail. In 2005, an amnesty was discussed in parliament, and the deputies voted unanimously for our release. But the Minister of Justice opposed their decision, so again we remained in prison.

Our lawyers even went to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, but our government refused to provide evidence of our imprisonment. The State was ordered to release us and grant us compensation, but no one complied—they left us in jail.

Soon after our trial, there was a moratorium suspending the death penalty in the DRC. We remained in prison but were no longer on death row, at least for the time being. It felt like the government could change its mind at any time and go back to executing inmates.

How has this time on death row affected you and your family?

I lost my father while I was in prison. He died of paralysis—I couldn’t be by his side. When my wife was sick, some officials told her that I would never be freed. She died soon after that. My mother was also told that I would not be released. In November of that same year, the President granted us a pardon but it was too late for her; she had already passed away. In January 2021, I was released, but my family was gone. Psychologically, I am no longer human. I live in the past.

How has life been since you were released from prison?

When my comrades and I went to prison, our families were thrown out of their homes because they were service houses paid for by the State. In the meantime, all our possessions were looted. Our families are now broken: children live in different cities, and some wives have left or died.

The State continues to treat us as if we were guilty: there is no compensation, no rehabilitation, nothing to help us carry on living.

How is your health?

I almost died a year ago. I was in my pastor’s waiting room and fell into a coma. At the hospital, they discovered I had a lot of illnesses: a heart problem, diabetes, hypertension, and impaired vision. This is all due to the torture I suffered for 20 years, the stress, the untreated diseases and the poor hygiene.

If I get really sick now, it's over for me. I can’t afford to see a doctor and I have no more family, so who will take care of me?

What about your mental health?

Before prison, I had a high-ranking position—I was in charge of a security service. Now all my friends who used to be lower in rank than me are generals or colonels. I can't approach them now; I am just a vagrant. I feel useless and alone.

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