Lack of knowledge of the country’s laws, coupled with a shortage of paralegal officers in prisons, has led to over a thousand murder suspects being on remand for years without trial.
At Mzimba Prison, for example, about 51 of the 55 murder suspects on remand have never appeared in court to answer charges of their alleged crimes several years after incarceration.
This was revealed during a meeting on Saturday when Mzuzu-based Knowledge of the Laws of the Land (Knoll) drilled inmates in their rights.
Prison authorities have admitted the problem, but attribute it to lack of knowledge among inmates, resulting from inadequate paralegal officers to sensitise inmates to their rights.
Mzimba Prison spokesperson Mcpharlane Gondwe said the longest-serving murder suspects at the facility were jailed in 2013 and are yet to face justice.
He said: “These cases are in the High Court and usually the suspects don’t know how to apply for bail. They usually think that they need a lawyer to file a bail application. They don’t know that they can do it on their own. So, most of them can’t afford a lawyer and they end up languishing in prison.”
Gondwe said if the suspects were knowledgeable enough of the law they wouldn’t be spending years in prison without trial and this would reduce congestion.
In an earlier interview with The Nation, Malawi Prisons Service (MPS) spokesperson Smart Maliro, while admitting the existence of such cases in prisons nationwide, attributed the lack of knowledge to lack of paralegals.
He said: “The MPS has taken a huge step towards addressing the situation. The Service has so far trained own paralegals both at certificate and diploma levels totalling to 19.”
He, however, said knowledge transfer to the inmates is a shared responsibility as it cuts across a number of stakeholders.
Mzimba Prison has 592 inmates, 47 of whom are adult murder remandees while eight are juvenile murder remandees.
Gondwe said the prison has two longest-serving murder suspects who were remanded in 2012.
“These two are foreign nationals who were given bail, but are still serving because they do not have surety,” he said.
He said 51 were arrested between 2013 and 2018, but are yet to appear in court.
One of the suspects, Joel Chirwa who was remanded on April 1 2013, said he does not know how to apply for bail.
“I came here at a tender age. I have never been to court. And I have grown up in prison. My future is blurred now,” said the 28-year-old.
This is a violation of human rights as the laws of the country provide 90 days as the maximum period that a person accused of murder can stay in prison pending commencement of his trial.
Section 42 of the Constitution stipulates that a person should be tried within reasonable time. And Section 161 (D) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code provides 90 days as the maximum period.
However, it states that the State has the liberty to extend the period at least seven days before the expiry of the 90 days.
Knoll executive director Christon Ghambi said the problem is that the country’s laws are written in English which makes it difficult for a common person to understand and interpret them.
“But these laws are not for lawyers or the learned. They are for all Malawians. So, the inmates need to be knowledgeable of the law to seek bail and appeal their cases,” he said.
Ghambi, a private practice lawyer, said his institution will assist suspects who have been in prison for over five years pro bono.
In an earlier interview, Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango told The Nation that Malawi has over 1 000 homicide remandees in various prisons.
He said some of them have stayed over 13 years waiting for trial, while others were tried by the High Court six years ago and are still waiting for judgement.
Mhango said most of these are poor Malawians who cannot afford legal representation.
“In other words, our criminal justice system is not responsive to issues of the poor. It is responsive to the rich,” he said.
Last month, The Nation also reported about a murder suspect at Mzuzu Prison who has been in prison for seven years without trial.
Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Mary Kachale asked for a questionnaire on the matter, but was yet to respond by the time we went to press. n