Guilty or innocent, hundreds of murder suspects are crowding Malawi’s remand prisons as the criminal justice system fails to try them, authorities have confirmed.
So far, 849 murder suspects are currently on remand nationwide, according to the Malawi Prisons Service (MPS).
Even in the face of the widely embraced philosophy among legal practitioners that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, the justice architecture—including the Judiciary and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) office —appear too handicapped to clear the cases.
In an interview on Friday, Judiciary spokesperson Joseph Chigona was reluctant to talk about a funding crisis for the murder cases, but confirmed that “all was not rosy”.
However, other Judiciary sources disclosed that High Court judges stopped going to districts for murder trials because the bench cannot afford fuel and other allowances.
One source explained that in the rare cases when the judges travel to districts, it is just to deliver a verdict, not to preside over hearings.
Instead, the sources said, murder suspects remanded closer to High Court registries such as Chichiri Prison, which is closer to the Blantyre Registry, are privileged because they would easily be taken there for trials.
One of the sources said: “Unfortunately, this funding problem has affected the entire system. We have departments such as the Legal Aid and the State Advocate offices that represent the accused persons and the State, respectively; they are failing to fully operate as they should have.
“In the last financial year, you can actually count the number of cases tried, very minimal. We heard of increased funding to the Judiciary in the 2014/15 national budget just presented. It is my prayer that will help resolve the problem at hand.”
But Chigona said the Judiciary was trying all it could to deal with murder cases.
“I cannot say it is 100 percent okay, but we have started dealing with the cases. Every week we do homicide cases. Of course, it is easy to do cases for suspects that are in Blantyre [or any other High Court registry closer to them]. It is not all that rosy financially, but we are trying our best.”
For years, the British Government had supported the funding of murder cases through its Department for International Development (DfID).
But the financial help dried up years ago—way before the Cashgate fiasco that saw several bilateral partners suspending budget support indefinitely.
Failure to clear murder cases has far-reaching consequences, according to chief commissioner of prisons Kennedy Nkhoma.
He said for the already congested prisons, 849 suspects is a huge number that is causing challenges in feeding the remandees and providing medication.
Prisons in Malawi have always experienced congestion problems. For example, the normal capacity of Maula Prison in Lilongwe is 850 inmates, but it accommodates over 2 000 inmates—more than double its ability.
Nationally, there were 12 500 prisoners as at November 2013 against the total capacity of 6 200 inmates, according to Nkhoma.
“Due to overcrowding, airborne diseases are the order of the day. It gives us unnecessary pressure in service delivery,” he said.
Gift Trapence, executive director of the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) said on Friday it is government’s responsibility to ensure the justice system is adequately funded.
Trapence said: “Lack of funding should not be used as an excuse to infringe on the rights of murder suspects. Malawi has more resources and we need to prioritise our spending by allocating more resources to critical areas.
“This is also what the [United Nations] UN Human Rights Committee recommended to the Malawi Government to allocate more funds for a prompt process of sentencing murder suspects and resentencing of prisoners who received a mandatory death penalty.”
He said the problem is that government has for too long relied on donor funding not only for murder trials but many critical areas, instead of saving money locally for such activities.
“The Malawi Human Rights Committee also raised concerns to the Malawi Government on the poor conditions of Malawi prisons. One way to address this is to expedite the adoption of the Prison Bill to be in conformity with international standards.
“There is also need to take immediate action to reduce the number of persons in pre-trial detention and also increase the use of non-custodial penalties taking into account the United Nations standard minimum rules for non-custodial measures,” he said.