When widespread irregularities ruined ex-president Peter Mutharika’s narrow re-election last year, Malawians marched against electoral injustice. Ironically, the He4She champion kept mum when police were acused of raping women in Mpingu, Mbwatalika and Msundwe outside the capital Lilongwe. Last week, the High Court ordered the police to arrest the suspects and compensate the victims. Our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE engages Dr Ngeyi Kanyongolo, who was part of the victorious legal team deployed by Women Lawyers Association (WLA).
What was your reaction when you heard about police involvement in rape and defilement?
I was extremely shocked and livid. I thought no, not the Malawi Police, no. I still cannot believe that police officers can organise the rape and assault of defenceless women and girls instead of protecting them. This was evil, a total breach of trust.
The police appeared reluctant to investigate the matter and the Ministry of Gender downplayed the issue. What does this say about the State institutions that are supposed to protect the victims?
This was evidence that the police had been politicised and compromised, which undermined the very fabric of their existence as provided for in the Constitution. The Ministry of Gender lacked appropriate leadership and integrity by relegating its duty to protect women.
What lessons can the country draw from the case pursued by women lawyers?
(1). The police must always rise above party politics and remain professional and disciplined. (2). Citizens must always be vigilant in asserting their rights and in the collective fight against injustice. (3).The Judiciary is key in ensuring citizens access justice and in holding State institutions accountable, especially when these are weak and failing.
Why is the ruling important to the nation? What responsibilities does it place on various State institutions?
The decision gives hope to a lot of oppressed people, especially women, that the justice system still works. It reinforces the importance of accountability and checks and balances among the organs of the State. It reminds institutions to always act according to law and if they don’t, that the law will catch up with the responsible individuals no matter how long it takes.
What more remedies could the victimised women and girls seek?
It is important that the women pursue the matter and ensure that the perpetrators of the heinous crimes are arrested and prosecuted and that their compensation is indeed paid. They should demand State security and psycho-social support. The young girls should be assisted with continued access to education, including reallocating them to boarding schools. They must push for the operationalisation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission which shall ensure that the leadership that failed the women of Msundwe, [Mpingu and Mbwatalika] are personally held to account and disciplined to avoid a repeat of system failure in protecting all citizens.
Apart from women who suffered sexual assault, Malawi Human Rights Commission reports that there are others who were harassed by police; some had tear gas fired into their homes, others were beaten and yet others had their property and business items damaged. Can they equally seek justice? How?
It is within their rights to seek justice. They can follow up with the police so that the perpetrators are prosecuted. They can also sue for compensation.
Police claim to be reformed, but we continue to experience incidences of their brutality that typified the operations in the one-party era. Could this be a case of individuals or system failure to reform the police?
It is both. The majority of police officers are hard working and do a lot of good. A few rogue officers tarnish the institution and must be isolated and made to answer for their transgressions.
However, the problem is systemic too. In the Msundwe case, the rapes and sexual assaults were organised. The police failed to seriously investigate the cases and take action. Almost a year now, no one has been arrested nor prosecuted. This goes beyond personal responsibility. It is a system failure.