2003: Lehlohonolo Bernard Kobedi

Ten years ago today, Botswana controversially hanged a South African national named Lehlohonolo Bernard Kobedi.

Kobedi was one of three men in a vehicle whose shootout with pursuing police left Sergeant Kebotsetswe Goepamang dead in the village of Palapye in 1993; despite insisting that the lethal bullet was not his, Kobedi was condemned for the homicide.

He resided thereafter on death row in relative obscurity. He was there in December 1999 when white South African emigre Mariette Bosch was sentenced to die, and he was still there 16 months later when she hanged. Bosch’s high-profile case, to hear Kobedi’s lawyer explain it, cast a pall over her client.

“I think it was at that very moment he started feeling that execution was a reality,” Themba Joina* told South African press. “You can imagine what he went through on realising that even international pressure and threats could not save Bosch.”

Kobedi would not enjoy such publicity. “The foreign media were only concerned about Bosch because she is white. Since she was hanged, we don’t see cameras in Botswana anymore,” Joina said.

Even so, he fought zealously for his client. Supported by the Botswana human rights organization DITSHWANELO, Joina mounted (pdf) both a claim of Kobedi’s actual innocence and a challenge to the constitutionality of Botswana’s death penalty. The country’s high court turned him down early in 2003.

It must have been a terrible ordeal for Kobedi. Packed four to a cell, and bracing every morning for the prospect of a sudden execution, the South African was finally put to death in secrecy the morning of July 18, 2003.

“I got cold. I had no hope at all,” one of his cellmates remembered of the hanging-day. But it’s a narrow space between life and death, and this fellow with only one frightening degree of separation from the gallows was the very next week cleared of his charges and released.

* Joina also happens to preside over a Marxist political party.