Pictures of police officers slapping students at Chancellor College (Chanco)—a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima)—during the demonstrations against the hiking of university fees, would make you think our law enforcers are above the law.
The force applied on defenseless and unarmed young university students has ignited calls for a probe into the conduct of the police officers involved.
These calls follow concerns by the public that the country’s law enforcers are taking the law into their hands by unleashing brutal force on civilians during ‘sweeping’ exercises’ using vagrancy laws during the day and night, and when clearing of vendors off the streets of major cities.
When such acts are reported to authorities, they promise to investigate, but results of the investigations are never made public or officers are often left scot-free.
For example, a month ago the police in Limbe in Blantyre City promised to investigate a case in which a woman who owns a bar alleged to have been brutally beaten by law enforcing officers—where hundreds of many others were equally manhandled, thrown into the cooler and later released after paying bail bond— has gone cold.
Flora Chimbalanga, the victim says she feels humiliated that police officers, who are supposed to protect her, are the ones who abused and harmed her.
“I feel very bad about this that while we are beaten up like criminals nothing happens to those officers who apparently acted outside their mandates. This gives some sort of encouragement to others to do the same as precedence has been set,” she said.
She hoped a day will come when Malawians would hold to account errant police officers who abuse their powers.
Another victim of police brutality, Hamilton Saizi from Lilongwe who was also victimized by police for being too close to the place where Kamuzu College of Nursing students were protesting the fees hike, is asking police management to identify bad apples within their ranks.
“It is unfortunate that if the same crimes were committed by a civilian they would be picked up almost immediately. But when such acts are done by men in uniforms there seems to be a whole new set of rules being applied. We need to practice equality which the Malawi Constitution spells out,” he said.
But why are police officers found perpetrating acts of brutality on civilians spared of punishment? Are they above the law?
Inspector General of Police Lexten Kachama told the media recently that no one is above the law. He said he has ordered a probe into the Chanco fiasco.
Despite these assurances, the cumulative effect of police brutality across the country has dented the police image that received a major makeup through the Police Reform Programme (PRP) funded by the British Government.
Executive director for Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) Victor Mhango called for stiff punishment on police officers who abuse their powers.
“The nation as a whole should be scared with how our police service is acting. There is need to bring to book all police officers who are involved in these barbaric acts. Citizens are not supposed to be afraid of the people entrusted to protect them. This is not the one party era,” he said.
Mhango explains that what needs to be done is that these vagrance laws should be decriminalised and declassified.
“The laws need to be so clear on vagrancy laws so that it gives no room to police officers to use it to violate rights of this country’s citizens. It is quite unfortunate that these human rights violations are happening in what is supposed to be a democratic society. More especially, at this time that police reforms are being implemented.
“The community reserves the right not to be intimidated or threatened by the police. The law does not in any way give police officers permission or the power to beat up unarmed citizens,” said Mhango.
The question of police brutality has been a subject of debate amongst Malawians for years. In 2011 some police officers were relieved of their duties and faced criminal charges for allegedly being involved in the shooting to death of 19 unarmed civilians during the famous July 20 anti- government demonstrations.
Various advocates have been calling for an independent body that should be assessing cases of police brutality arguing that self-investigations by police had failed to make an impact.
The begging question remains whether the police perpetrators of violence would face the long arm of the law if indeed; no one is above the law. n