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A Sad Story of Ghati Mwita, An Elderly Woman Who Has Spent 15 Years in Prison Without Evidence

For fifteen years since her conviction, Ghati has been detained in Butimba Central Prison, a maximum-security facility near Mwanza.

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Ghati Mwita is an elderly woman who has spent 15 years in prison, despite a total lack of concrete evidence against her.

Before Ghati was arrested, she was a model citizen. A survivor of gender-based violence, she worked as a police officer for over a decade and then as a women’s rights activist, combating female genital mutilation and child marriage.

This work continued inside the prison, where Ghati supports other women struggling with the harsh realities of prison and is known affectionately by the other female inmates as ‘mother.’

In 2008, Ghati was sentenced to death by hanging at the Tanzanian Supreme Court for the murder of a local fisherman. Authorities say she set fire to him deliberately. Until today, she maintained that his death was an accident.

READ MORE: LHRC Calls for Reforms in Tanzania’s Criminal Justice System

Intoxicated, the fisherman visited her home late at night to continue a dispute over Ghati’s missing boat. He fell onto her cooking fire, and after failing to extinguish the flames herself, Ghati took him to the hospital, where he died of his burns.

Lack of transparency

Ghati was held for six days before being interviewed, in contravention of Tanzanian law. As the days since her arrest turned into years, her case has come to symbolise the lack of transparency in Tanzania’s clemency process as well as the arbitrary nature of the death penalty.

Four witnesses for the prosecution came forward to give testimonies, though many of the details were inconsistent and contradictory. Assessors gave Ghati an initial verdict of not guilty, but instead of releasing her, a judge overruled them and sentenced her to death.

For fifteen years since her conviction, Ghati has been detained in Butimba Central Prison, a maximum-security facility near Mwanza. Like other detention facilities in Tanzania, conditions inside Butimba are extremely poor: cells are overcrowded, guards physically abuse the prisoners, and the sanitary conditions are dire.

Tanzania continues to sentence people to death even though it’s surrounded by neighbours who have abolished the mandatory death penalty, including Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia.

Ghati spent ten years of her sentence on death row before her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the late President John Magufuli. Unfortunately, since then, the circumstances of her imprisonment have become even worse; access to food, water, and medical care has reached crisis levels. 

READ MORE: Tanzania’s Criminal Justice System Fails People With Intellectual Disability

Instead of increasing food supply, in 2018, Magufuli said prisoners should grow their food, and if they are too lazy to do so, they should be beaten.

Long years in such dire conditions have compounded Ghati’s health conditions; she is HIV positive and does not have regular access to her antiretroviral medication. She also has persistent depressive disorder and is occasionally suicidal. With a compromised immune system, if Ghati contracts a disease in prison, she is at risk of death.

On April 26, each year, the Republic of Tanzania celebrates Union Day, the day on which Tanganyika and the People’s Republic of Zanzibar came together. On this day, President Samia Suluhu Hassan traditionally uses her power to pardon prisoners for any offense unconditionally. Over 5,000 prisoners have been released to date under her rule.

No clemency

But Ghati’s name has not yet appeared on the list, despite applying four times. No explanation for the rejection has been given, and there seems to be little clarity on who will be released and when. The lack of progress in her case has given way to psychological torment. At times, Ghati feels she has lost all hope.

Last year, President Samia established a Criminal Justice Commission to review various aspects of Tanzania’s justice system. The Commission called for the abolition of the mandatory death penalty and life sentences—a lifeline for Ghati, had it ever materialized. But to date, the government has not implemented any of these recommendations.

READ MORE: Commission to Investigate Tanzania’s Criminal Justice System Inaugurated

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Ghati took her case to the African Court in 2019, which ruled that her mandatory death sentence violated the African Charter. The court ordered a resentencing hearing in which Ghati couldn’t be sentenced to death. 

Still, the Tanzanian government has ignored this judgment, failed to revise the Penal Code, or removed the mandatory death penalty. Despite winning her case, Ghati remains in prison with no hope of release.

The average life expectancy in Tanzania is 66 years old—Ghati’s age in September. She is vulnerable, and she should be released so that she can spend her remaining years in dignity and with her family at home.

Anna Henga is the Executive Director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC). She can be reached at or on X as @HengaAnna. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at

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