The ruling on Msundwe rape case has excited many. Thanks to Women Lawyers Association WLA), who stepped in when the police and the ministry responsible for gender issues appeared unwilling to intervene, the High Court has ordered the State to compensate the victims and prosecute suspected rapists in police uniform. But beyond those that were sexually assaulted in Msundwe, Mpingu and M’bwatalika in Lilongwe, police brutalised more women. What’s it with police’s undying habit of brutality? SUZGO CHITETE reports.
Women raped. Girls defiled. Tear gas canisters fired into homes. Children and their mothers choking with itchy smoke. Many others physically assaulted. And their property, including business items, either stolen or damaged. Such were the atrocities faced by civilians at the hands of armed police officers deployed there to quell post-election protests in Msundwe, Mbwatalika and Mpingu outside Lilongwe City where some residents reportedly mounted roadblocks on the outlet to Zambia.
The locals suspect that it was a revenge act after some protesters had stoned a police officer to death in his line of duty.
According to a report by Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), women, who were not part of the male-dominated marches for electoral justice that claimed the life of superintendent Usimani Imedi, became sexual victims of police brutality.
“Most of the affected women and girls, we learnt, were those that were vulnerable…had some health conditions or minors who could not run. Men, boys and able women managed to run to safety,” explains Hilda Soko, a lead lawyer for the victims of police-orchestrated rape and defilement orgy.
Soko puts the long neglected sexual assault case in perspective.
“One woman had just undergone a caesarean operation and another was diabetic. Due to the conditions, they could not run away. They easily became rape victims,” she explains.
Oftentimes, the police have perpetrated violence against citizens they are mandated to protect.
However, raping and defiling citizens first reported in October 2019 represents a new low in a lengthening tale of police brutality.
To rights defenders opposed to violence against women, the act illustrates how the uniformed security agency has resisted reform despite change of name from a police force to a public service institution.
“Rape and defilement was about sending a strong message that they are powerful than the community. With this, one wonders if indeed the police is truly reformed,” says Victor Mhango, executive director of Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa).
Mhango’s organisation was part of a civil society movement that demanded justice for the victim of sexual assault.
He is elated that justice has finally been served for the rape victims, but hopes that victims of different atrocities will get redress too.
“Our focus is now on other women who were equally assaulted in different ways. Some lost property. Some are still traumatised with the experience that they went through at the hands of the police. They too deserve justice,” he explains.
On the day of sexual attacks, Nisha Dimu Sakonda, 24, was bathing her four-month-old baby in her home when a tear gas canister dropped inside a poorly ventilated hut.
“The baby coughed uncomfortably and cried loudly until she fainted. Thank God, I still had the energy to jump a fence and run away from danger. I hid in some nearby stream. Fortunately, the baby came back to life. I took her to St Gabriel Hospital for treatment,” she narrates.
Ivy Kachipata, 27, from Mpingu, remembers seeing the police beating her 70-year-old grandmother.
Some of her neighbours had their business property razed down by law enforcers.
MHRC has documented over a hundred cases of people who deserve compensation for loss of property after falling victim to a police workforce that has denied civilians avenues to hold its rogue staff to account.
MHRC probe shows that the police burnt property and stole mobile phones, household items, beer and money.
The State-owned human rights watchdog asks the police service to investigate its officers and bring culprits to book.
The police’s failure to implement this recommendation has forced MHRC to go a different route.
“After noticing the obvious challenge that most of them don’t have access to legal services, we will commence mass action on their behalf in partnership with institutions and human rights lawyers,” said Peter Chisi, MHRC director of civil and political rights.
True to his words, most victims interviewed by MHRC did not report their cases to police for fear of being ostracised and victimised some more.
“So we let it go. We did not want to suffer again,” says Susan Nyirongo, 47, from Msundwe.
The businesswoman had her planks burnt down to ashes by men in uniform.
“This has disrupted my livelihood. My two sons immediately withdrew from school for lack of support,” she says.
Soko says the victims’ failure to report to police is the reason women lawyers are fighting for establishment of the Independent Police Complaints Commission prescribed by the revised Police Act enacted in 2010.
“We are now conducting legal clinics in Msundwe, M’bwatalika and Mpingu to have people know that we exist and we can help them. So talking about those other cases of women assaulted in different ways, I can assure you we are on it to see to it that justice prevails,” she says.
Gender activist Emma Kaliya says while many people across the country have suffered huge losses during the post-electoral violence, there must be preferential focus on the victimised women outside the capital city “because the violence was perpetrated by police who are supposed to prevent act sof violence “.
She says the conduct of the police and Ministry of Gender, who were unwilling to help the victimised women is “a sad story of how lack of political will can lead to impunity”.
“The President and Vice-President may have the political will to deal with this kind of violence, even the Inspector-General of Police may have the will, but we need the same to get down to officers. They should always strive to protect, not to harm” says Kaliya.
Beatrice Mateyo, the gender activist the police swiftly detained for flagging a tell-all poster the law enforcers deemed to insult the modesty of a woman, wonders how the security agents who acted with speed on her case could not move an inch when their own staff violently insulted the modesty of a woman.
“The ruling on Msundwe women forms the basis for us to truly begin to have the police service which operates within the confines of the law. The absence of the Independent Complaint Commission made some think they can act as they please—without anyone checks and balances,” she says.