The recent Supreme Court of Appeal’s decision to grant bail to a murder suspect has set tongues wagging.
The suspect in question is Lilongwe businessperson William Mark Phiri, who allegedly murdered his second wife Waheeda Bagus, 23, and has been on remand for more than a year.
However, the 37-year-old’s release last week has generated outcry and calls for a speedy trial, with former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Ishmael Wadi being among those voicing concerns.
Allegedly, Bagus was shot on December 15 2019 in Lilongwe, and died at Kamuzu Central Hospital a few days later.
In the order to release Phiri on bail, Justice Lovemore Chikopa bases the decision on Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code, which sets time limits as to when an accused can be detained without trial.
“The maximum period that a person accused of treason, genocide, murder, rape, defilement and robbery may be held in lawful custody, pending commencement of trial in relation to that offence shall be 90 days,” reads Section 161G.
Chikopa also makes a reminder that the accused, who was remanded at Maula Prison in Lilongwe, is innocent until proven otherwise, hence the bail.
“Considering, too, that an accused is presumed innocent and that an accused must never be remanded in custody as a form of punishment, we are of the most considered view that the interest of justice in this case tilts more towards granting the applicant leave to appeal, extending time within which to appeal and admitting him to bail with conditions,” reads the ruling, in part.
Phiri’s bail conditions include a K2.5 million cash bond; two sureties of K1.5 million non-cash bonds, surrendering his travel documents and reporting to Lingadzi Police Station every fortnight.
But in an interview yesterday, Wadi, who earlier posted on his Facebook page demanding justice for Waheeda, said he was concerned that Phiri’s release would delay the case.
“From experience as a defence lawyer and a prosecutor, when accused people are released on bail, what follows is a delayed trial and a delayed trial is basically a delay of justice. This has been a common practice for a very long time,” he said.
Wadi said although the law sets time limit as to when a murder suspect can be on remand, “the general principle has been that they are detained and answer the charges from remand”.
The private practice lawyer, who was DPP between 2004 and 2006, said he has since appealed to Judiciary to treat the case as a priority.
“This is a case that generated public concern and outrage. So, we ask the High Court to set up a speedy trial,” said Wadi.
One of Phiri’s lawyers, Zwelithini Chipembere, in response to our questionnaire said the accused was “grateful to due process of law”.
However, Chipembere sided with those concerned with Phiri’s delayed trial.
“We are, however, sensitive to the various inevitable factors inclusive administrative issues that are being managed and resolved by the court before we have an expedited trial process,” he said.
Others in Phiri’s defence team include Manuel Theu and Edgar Kachere.
Meanwhile, the late Waheeda’s aunt Fernanda Mussa Omar has expressed shock at Phiri’s release.
“It’s been a year now since we lost our child. It is sad that the one who killed her has been released. He is a threat to our family and to everyone…That girl died like a dog and we are still grieving for her,” she said.
On his part, human rights activist Victor Mhango has said he is not against Phiri’s release, pointing out that “bail is a constitutional right”.
The Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director, however, asked the justice system to ensure that the rule is applied to others who are on remand.
“There are people that have been on remand for more than 10 years, with less complicated cases than this one. Justice should not only be for the rich. We ask that the law is applied fairly,” he said.
Phiri and the late Waheeda, who died at 23, had a child together.
According to court records, the suspect’s bail comes after three earlier failed attempts.