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Aron John

  • Malawi
  • Death penalty; mandatory death penalty

Aron John spent 16 years in prison in Malawi; ten of which on death row. He was one of the first prisoners to be re-sentenced following the abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Malawi in 2007.

Aron's story

Aron was working as a waiter when he was arrested in 2003. He was charged, along with Tony Thobowa, a juvenile, for the murder of his wife’s former husband. Despite signing a caution statement maintaining his innocence, this was not produced at his trial. Aron and Tony were found guilty of murder and the mandatory death sentence was imposed – the only punishment the judges could give at that time.

Whilst in prison, Aron’s father and wife passed away. He was diagnosed with clinical depression as a result of not only facing execution but also being separated from his village and worrying about his young children and family. Aron explained: “It was very tormenting. Every day I thought I would be executed. I faced death every day. I always thought about the president signing for our execution.”

Mandatory death penalty challenged

In 2005, working alongside the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and local lawyers, we coordinated a successful challenge to Malawi’s mandatory death penalty in the landmark case of Kafantayeni & Others. Aron and his co-defendant, Tony Thobowa, were two of the six plaintiffs included in this constitutional motion.

In 2007, Malawi’s High Court unanimously declared the mandatory death penalty for murder unconstitutional. This applied not only to the surviving Plaintiffs in Kafantayani, including Aron John, but also to all the prisoners who had been sentenced to the mandatory death penalty, even if their mandatory sentences had subsequently been commuted to life imprisonment. This applied to over 190 prisoners.

The death penalty is not necessary. It is a very bad punishment. You should know that some people are convicted for failure to defend themselves. There is a possibility of error in judgement. Besides, people commit offences under different circumstances. The proper sentence should be in term of years. I believe that every person is capable of reforming into a better person.

Aron John

Records lost

In preparation for Aron’s re-sentencing hearing, volunteer lawyer, Emile Carreau, searched for the case files for many prisoners, without success, in the chaotic, and occasionally rat-infested court registry. Of the few records that could be found, many were water-damaged, unlabelled or incomplete. In Aron’s case, his court records could not be located. Without the case papers, it was impossible to present mitigating factors that may have stemmed from the trial.

Re-sentencing

Aron’s re-sentencing hearing was held on 27 April 2015. Taking into account the time served in prison (12 years), and other mitigating evidence, including a psychiatric report and character witness evidence, both Aron and Tony were re-sentenced to twenty-four years imprisonment, with the possibility of early release based on good behaviour. Tony was released in 2016.

Aron John was released on 6th July 2019.

For more information about other Kafantayeni plaintiffs, see Richard Chipoka’s story here.

Case Timeline

  1. Aron John is arrested and charged for murder.

  2. Aron is tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

  3. The Death Penalty Project begins to work on a constitutional challenge to Malawi's mandatory death penalty.

  4. In a landmark judgment in the case of Kafantayeni v Attorney General, the High Court of Malawi declares the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional

  5. In the case of Twoboy Jacob v Republic, the Court of Appeal approves the decision of the High Court in declaring the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional.

  6. The Malawi Capital Resentencing Project is established by a coalition including Cornell Law School, Reprieve UK, the Malawi Human Rights Commission, the Law Society, Legal Aid and the Paralegal Advisory Services Institute

  7. Aron is re-sentenced by the Malawi High Court. His death sentence is substituted to a term of 24 years imprisonment.

  8. On 6th July 2019, Aron is released from prison.

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