About 1 400 murder suspects are on remand in Malawi’s prisons, which the Judiciary attributes to funding problems and delays in bringing disclosures to the court.
The Prisons Inspectorate fears that inmates can develop mental disorders due to the long period it takes for them to appear before a court of law.
A Prisons Inspectorate Report—dated August 2016—says authorities take at least a year to bring murder suspects to court.
“Murder remandees are the most affected as they can spend more than a year without being taken to court. This often leads to some inmates developing mental problems as they are unsure of their fate.”
The report also highlights shortage of space and food in all prisons.
The development has prompted chairperson for Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) Robert Mkwezalamba to warn that civil society organisations (CSOs) will take to task individual government officers for failure to comply with the 2007 ruling which gave the State 18 months to improve prison conditions.
The Gable Masangano versus Attorney General and others (Constitutional Case number 15 of 2007) gave the State 18 months to, among other things, improve prison conditions.
Some of the conditions the ruling ordered the State to improve are congestion emanating from jailing people who were supposed to do community service, delays in processing appeals, food shortages, cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of warders, including beatings with sjambok.
Said Mkwezalamba: “Failure to take prisoners to court is not only a violation of their human rights, but also a defeat of justice.
“Our concern is that government has been giving lip-service to human rights issues, including its treatment of prisoners. Countries have been summoned to defend themselves at the United Nations on such issues where suspects are denied the opportunity to appear in court.
“If anything it is not their [suspects] fault that investigations take time to conclude or there is no money to fund their trials. In our view government officials have stood aloof for a long time. We are now roaring into gear where we will target individual officials to answer why they do not comply with court rulings,” he said.
Mkwezalamba added that the delays in taking murder suspects to court dilute evidence, which results in wrong convictions and acquittals.
Judiciary spokesperson Mlenga Mvula acknowledged the delays on homicide cases in an e-mailed response on Tuesday.
Said Mvula: “There are a number of factors such as delays in bringing disclosures to the court by the prosecution team. As Judiciary, we have come up with mechanisms to deal with such issues such as holding camp courts in various prisons across the country. Access to justice requires concerted efforts by all players in the justice sectors.”
Mvula cited lack of funds by prosecuting institutions such as the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) as one of the reasons for delays in taking prisoners to court.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Apoche Itimu on Thursday said that early this month, at the Criminal Justice Stakeholders’ Conference, it was agreed that homicide cases be expedited.
She called on other stakeholders to show commitment to clear the backlog of murder cases.
But Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango said while government introduced a number of reforms in relation to criminal justice procedures since 2010, there were still many areas that needed instant improvement.
He said: “It is an open secret that many pre-trial detainees are still detained well beyond the legal limits for pre-trial. This is an abuse of a right to fair trial, which is a huge minus on human rights.”
Established under Section 169 of the Constitution, the inspectorate charged the civil society and other actors in the areas of governance and human rights, including the Malawi Human Rights Commission, to pay prisons regular visits to offer education on human rights and other relevant subjects.
Malawi Prison Services spokesperson Smart Maliro was yet to respond to our questionnaire on the report’s findings. n