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After 20 years, convicted deathrow inmate returns home to grown kids and no wife

By Nathan Ochunge | April 5th 2021

A middle-aged man from Essaba village, Emuhaya constituency in Vihiga County could not hide his joy when he returned home after spending 20 years behind bars, staring at a death sentence over robbery with violence charges.

Peter Nanjelo, 45, a former businessman who believes he was wrongfully convicted, returned home three weeks ago following a presidential pardon, to adult children and missing wife.

“My prayers were answered and I was set free at last. I went home only to find that my wife had long gone and left behind the two children we sired together. My children who are now adults and my relatives welcomed me home,” Nanjelo told The Nairobian.

Son: I had given up on seeing dad alive again

His son Philip whom he left aged just four years, never thought he would see his father alive again.

“For the 20 years I had lived without seeing my dad, I had given up since he was set to die. We received information that his death sentence had been reversed to life imprisonment but whenever we visited him, the prison warders turned us away and denied us the chance to see him. This was the most painful moment in my life,” he said.

According to Philip, 24, having no father for 20 years was torturous especially in school where he was bullied and condemned.

“I am happy to have met my father alive and life will now start afresh since there is hope for good things to come. I want to thank God for keeping him safe to this day for our sake,” he said.


On the fateful day

The events leading to the conviction of Peter Nanjelo are still fresh in his mind, although the incident happened 20 years ago.

Back then, 25-years-old Nanjelo was a budding businessman with a young family. His firstborn Philip Nanjelo was a toddler while his daughter was just 12 months old.

Nanjelo who dealt in leather products was based in Nairobi’s industrial area and besides Nairobi, he would supply leather products to Nakuru, Kisumu and Mombasa.

December 1, 2001 is a day the tanner will never forget.

“Everything happened like a movie to me as I did not know what was happening. I was in Nakuru town when a dozen police officers armed with AK 47 riffles pounced on me," he told The Nairobian.

He was accused of being ring leader of a criminal gang linked to rampant robbery with violence in Nakuru town and its environs.

In an interview with The Nairobian at his Essaba village home, Emuhaya constituency in Vihiga County, the father-of-two said, he was in Nakuru to supply leather products to Asian clients and he is convinced, he was wrongfully arrested.

While waiting for payments from his Asian clients, Nanjelo claims that he dodged a cousin he had travelled and stayed with for one night, to put up at a friend.

“It was around 5pm when I suddenly bumped into a battalion of police officers in Nakuru CBD and I remember one of them shouting ‘Ndio huyu tunatafuta’ (Here is the one we are looking for)," said Nanjelo, but, “The officers pounced on me with kicks and blows, handcuffed and took me to Nakuru Central Police station.”

For the next 18 days, he was remanded and later charged with eight counts of crime.

Three of the counts was robbery with violence. Nanjelo was accused of robbing an Asian and an African man of unspecified amount of money and stealing a car belonging to another Asian, which he used to escape from police.

“What put me in trouble is the police officer who misled me to accept the charges so I would be set free; but my testimony slapped me with a death sentence. By accepting the charges, I had dug my own grave; I forgive the cop if at all he is still alive,” Nanjelo told The Nairobian.

Nanjelo’s Nakuru house was marked as a crime scene and a hideout for criminals. His case was concluded after 13 months and he was sentenced to death on February 21, 2003 with 14 days to appeal. But the appeal was dismissed and he was taken to Kamiti Maximum Prison.

“When you are in the execution block, there is no hope that you will see tomorrow and all you are waiting for is when your time to be hanged will come. This was a time I had finished all the appeals up to the Court of Appeal,” said Nanjelo.

He was later moved to Naivasha Maximum Prison (condemned block) and again back to the Execution block in Kamiti. All the while, Nanjelo avers that his family were unaware of his fate. According to the ex-death row convict, he was unable to communicate with relatives since only few people owned mobile phones.

Back home, his family was trying to trace his whereabouts in vain.

“The most painful part was my young family that I had left with no one to look after since I was the sole bread winner. I felt that life had come to an end as everything was against me. Back home my wife was jobless and had two kids to take care of,” said Nanjelo.

Life behind bars

He added: “Life in prison was hard to cope with. I was mistreated by my fellow convicts, tortured by prison warders   and even though I have earned my freedom, it will take time for me to heal and adjust. The saddest part is that they denied us freedom to see our family members whenever they came to visit.”

He got some reprieve in 2009 when President Mwai Kibaki’s Executive Order reversed death sentence to life imprisonment.

Nanjelo said the announcement gave him hope, though his freedom was still curtailed. All the same, his attitude changed and he enrolled for a tailoring course. He also attended guidance and counselling sessions.

He would later be transferred to Manyani Maximum Prison in Nyeri and later to Shimo la Tewa Maximum Prison and finally to Kodiaga Prison.

Nanjelo’s only remaining hope was a Presidential pardon after all his appeals were dismissed. In 2016 he wrote a petition to Chief Justice Emeritus David Maraga, arguing that his death sentence was unconstitutional.

Luckily, Nanjelo was freed after a report declared him reformed given that he was serving as a court trustee and he had graduated with a tailoring course while in prison. Nanjelo is planning to seek legal redress over wrongful arrest and detention once he puts his family affairs in order.


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