Article written

  • on 28.11.2013
  • at 11:30 AM
  • by Kevin Hind

Malawi: Justice for the Rich, Prison for the Poor 0

In the last year or so, Malawi’s justice system has had more than its fair share of VIPs coming through its doors. In October 2012, several high-level officials linked to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were arrested in connection with the death of student activist Robert Chasowa, who was murdered in 2011 when the DPP was in office.

And in light of the recent government corruption scandal – dubbed Cashgate in reference to the wads of cash found in suspects’ homes and cars – more high-ranking figures, including former justice minister Ralph Kasambara, have been taken into custody.

For once, these individuals are seeing their country’s justice system from the inside. But in Malawi, justice, like so many other things, seems to be a privilege rather than a universal right. And the experience of Malawi’s VIPs is likely to be a universe away from that of the 12,000ordinary citizens detained in prisons across the country.

A tale of two justice systems

Robert Chasowa, a student activist and critic of the late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika, died in September 2011. Against much outcry and suspicion, his death was originally classified as a suicide. After Mutharika passed away and Joyce Banda took over the presidency in April 2012, however, she reopened the case. A few months later, in October 2012, several figures – many members of the DPP – were arrested in connection with Chasowa’s death, now being treated as the result of murder, and transferred to Chichiri prison in Blantyre, the largest in the Southern region.

Working in the prison at the time, the high-profile detainees were immediately noticeable. After all, it is extremely unusual to find well-fed inmates dressed in suits and laughing with the prison guards. And it is even more unusual that within an hour of arriving in the prison, these detainees had met with their private lawyers who soon set to work on their bail applications.

This treatment could not be more different to that of the majority of Malawian prisoners. Most of those who find themselves in Chichiri arrive handcuffed, emaciated, and in torn clothing. They are welcomed by being lined up in the prison courtyard and humiliatingly strip-searched. 90% of all Malawi’s prisoners cannot afford legal representation and have to rely on the country’s 28overworked and underpaid legal aid lawyers. Defendants rarely get the opportunity to meet their lawyers before trial.

Furthermore, the conditions for ordinary prisoners are dire. Overcrowding means prison cells built to hold 60 men are often filled with 200. Disease spreads easily, resulting in a high number of deaths from the likes of tuberculosis and AIDS. And if you manage to avoid catching an infectious disease, you are also at risk of dying from malnutrition as inmates may only be given one small cup of Nsima (a maize based staple food) a day, depending on the prison budget.

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By Charlotte MackenzieThink Africa Press 

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