Faith Behind Bars: A Falsely Accused Child Finds Hope in God

Hillary "Henry" Tumwesige spent the last 2 years of his childhood behind bars for murders he didn't commit. Only faith in God kept him strong.

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- Posted on Apr 25, 2016

Hillary Tumwesige (middle) with appeals lawyers

Never did Hillary “Henry” Tumwesige think he’d spend the last 2 years of his childhood in prison for murders he didn’t commit.  

In 2008, Hillary was just a normal 15 year-old boy growing up in Hoima, Uganda, a city in the country’s western region.

He’d wake up early in the morning to help his mother make chapatti (unleavened bread) to sell at local restaurants. Then, he’d head to school with his two younger brothers, Joseph and Herbert, where he was ranked first in his class. Hoping to achieve his dreams of going to university—a feat neither of his parents were able to do—he’d be in school from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., then he’d study with other students until 9:00 p.m.

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On Sundays, his family would go to church. That was where he built the strong faith he would need to get through the worst ordeal of his life.

On a sunny day that May, his whole life changed. Hillary went to school as usual, but during his entrepreneurship class, his headmaster walked through the door and motioned for Hillary to leave with him. Always obedient, Hillary followed anxiously after his headmaster, wondering what instructions he would have to follow.

Waiting around the corner for him was a police officer. As Hillary’s classmates looked on, the officer held Hillary up against a wall and arrested him for the murder of a man who was found buried in Hillary’s family’s backyard. When he was put into the police vehicle, he saw his younger brother Joseph and his mother in the car, both also arrested for the same crime.

Though he was shocked that they were all being accused of a crime they didn’t commit, “I never reacted negatively,” Hillary tells guideposts.org of his arrest. “When I was taken to the police captain, I expected to be released in three days,” he says, remembering what he’d always heard about the procedure for people who had been arrested by mistake.

The night before his arrest, Hillary’s youngest brother Herbert had run outside to meet Hillary in front of their home in a panic, explaining that a man had been murdered in their yard. The man was an employee of Hillary’s father who had recently stolen Hillary’s mother’s chapattis and their savings from their home before going into hiding. A mob spotted the man in town and, despite Hillary’s father’s attempts to restrain them, the mob killed the man in front of Hillary’s home and left him dead at about 8:30 a.m., when Hillary and his brothers had been at school.

Feeling the police were too corrupt to be trusted not to accuse him of the murder, Hillary’s father buried the man in the backyard himself. None of them ever dreamed that Hillary, his mother, father and little brother Joseph would all be arrested and accused of the crime.

The three days Hillary thought it would take for him to be released came and went, uneventfully. Though Hillary’s mother was released after two weeks in prison, Hillary and Joseph and their father stayed in the Hoima prison for two months before getting a court hearing.

“I still had hope that I was going to be released,” he says, until he learned in court that his case had to be heard by the high court and they would have to wait until the next time the high court met. “‘When will the court sit?’ I asked, and the magistrate told me he didn’t know the time, the date, the hour and even the judge who was going to work upon our case. The only thing [to do] was go, relax and wait until that date. That’s when I realized, ‘Uh oh. It’s going to take a long time.’”

Hillary and Joseph were moved to Ihungu Remand Home, a juvenile prison in Masindi, to wait for the high court to meet, while their father remained in the Hoima prison.

Every day in prison, Hillary says, “I was praying and asking one thing: for God to help me out.” In the meantime, he made sure to take care of his little brother as best as he could. Being the great student and obedient child that he was, Hillary soon became the katikiro (prime minister) of his fellow juvenile prisoners.

“I was the one taking care of them,” he says. “I would take them to the hospital if they got sick. I took them to the public hospital to only get help from one doctor. Unfortunately, this one doctor wasn’t working appropriately.”

Hillary says the doctor would neglect them because they were juvenile prisoners. The doctor would make them wait very long periods of time and only treat one or two of them before leaving the office, or treating the doctor’s close friends first, making the juveniles spend the whole day standing around waiting for the doctor to treat them. “The doctor wasn’t having any empathy on the patients,” Hillary says, and it upset him greatly.

“I told God, if I am released, I will become a doctor and I will make a difference.”

As the months went on, however, it was looking less and less likely that Hillary and Joseph’s case would be heard quickly. To make matters worse, in December 2009, one of the juvenile prisoners died of asthma, but Hillary was accused of that death as well, since he was the leader, all but ensuring he would either face the death penalty or spend the rest of his life in prison.

His mother would come to visit him and Joseph whenever she could and she helped them stay strong as they waited for justice to be served.

READ MORE: FINDING STRENGTH IN THE JOY OF GOD

“Mom used to tell me always, ‘Don’t give up [Hillary] with prayers. Keep your faith strong. Nothing lasts forever, except the Word of God.’ And she was right.”

Hillary continued to fast and pray while in prison that God would deliver him and Joseph from this nightmare.

After 18 months, a team of pro bono lawyers, including Guideposts writer Jim Gash, helped to clear Hillary’s name of the first murder, along with Joseph and their father. But Hillary had to remain in prison alone as he faced the second murder charge. Six months later, at the age of 17, he was released on probation before finally being cleared of the second murder charge in 2015. Both brothers were enrolled in the Restore Leadership Academy so they could catch up on the years of education they missed.

Hillary never forgot his promise to God and went back to his studies more determined than ever to be a doctor. Despite every setback, Hillary kept the faith and at age 23, is now studying to be a medical doctor at Kampala International University. He will graduate in 2020.

As for the last years of his childhood that he lost to being falsely accused of horrific crimes, Hillary says he has no anger at all. “I believe God had plans for me,” he tells Guideposts.org. “All that happened happened for His name to be glorified.”

“It’s hard to believe the conditions I went through. I can’t imagine [going through] the suffering I went through again,” says Hillary, “But I’m still willing to go back to the prison to give a message of hope to the prisoners that, after every suffering, God is in control.”

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