Do crime suspects in Malawi have rights?

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law. You have the right to an attorney…”

These are the rights often read to criminal suspects in democratic countries, particularly the United States of America, where human rights are respected.

Malawi is also a democracy, but it appears this right is not recognised.

Take the case of Alfred Mangazawo of Ndirande, Blantyre, for example. The 20-year-old has a story to tell about poor police conduct when dealing with suspects.

Last May, around 2am, Mangazawo was awakened by a violent opening of his bedroom door. He saw two angry police officers walk in. When they came closer, they let their fists and punches do the questioning.

Unaware of what wrong he had done to deserve such treatment, Mangazawo’s cry for mercy landed on deaf ears.

Seeing that the beating was getting out of hand, his uncle Jones Mchenga, together with a few neighbours who had come to witness the scene, grabbed the police officers. This gave Mangazawo a chance to escape.

A case of mistaken identity

It was not until morning when Mangazawo reported the incident to Blantyre Police that he was told that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Mchenga recalls the events of the night.

“I think it was around 2am when the police, accompanied by a young woman, broke the door to enter my house. The police asked the woman if I was the man they were looking for. She said no and pointed at my nephew’s bedroom. They proceeded to break his bedroom door and, without asking him anything, they started beating him up,” says Mchenga.

He says they learnt later that there was a party in the neighbourhood the night before and two sisters went missing.

“The girl they came with was a friend to the girls and she had mentioned Alfred as the man who was last seen with the girls. They beat him up with their guns and as he ran away, they shot twice in the air. It was really a horrific experience,” says Mchenga.

Mangazawo and his uncle tried following up with the police, looking for some sort of solace or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but all they have gotten to date is emotional abuse. They have now been labelled as ‘anthu olimbana ndi police’ meaning they are trying to challenge the police.

“After getting only insults instead of help from the police, we reported the case to Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) who have been very supportive. The issue is currently under investigation. The police have not even apologised to us,” says Mangazawo.

To this day, Mangazawo’s left arm remains swollen; he can hardly make a fist and carry out heavy chores. The arm remains a bitter reminder of a case that could have been avoided had the police followed necessary procedures.

Police’s abuse of suspects

Mangazawo’s case is not an isolated one. Media reports indicate that crime suspects’ rights continue to be abused. Suspects are questioned in the absence of a lawyer and are forced to divulge information. In worse scenarios, police beatings have led to death of some suspects.

Is it that people do not know their rights or the police take advantage of their powers?

Mangazawo says he was not given an opportunity to explain his side of the story, nor was he told why the police beat him up in his bedroom so late in the night.

“I was not given the opportunity to defend myself, say what I knew about the issue, and my rights were not read to me. I know the police are supposed to introduce themselves and tell me why I am being arrested. I was not accorded that courtesy,” he says.

The mindset of police officers a problem

MHRC executive secretary Grace Malera says it is not that the police are not aware of their responsibility, but it is a problem of mindset and re-orientation.

“One of the things we have found out is that the police are aware of the rights and required procedure for arrests, but they are failing to embrace these rights. But the other challenge is with the support mechanism. Suspects are supposed to be questioned in a room where they are alone but we do not have such rooms in our police premises.

“There is really a lot that needs to be done,” says Malera.

National police spokesperson Dave Chingwalu denied knowledge of Mangazawo’s case, but said the police is an open organisation which treats complainants fairly. He said the police have an internal affairs department which looks into complaints made against it.

“When complaints have been placed, the Inspector General takes them up. A full investigation is undertaken and where prosecution is necessary, it is done. If victims of alleged crimes are not receiving necessary help at a particular station, the case must be taken to regional level and if that fails, they can come to the headquarters. The police is open and is there for everyone.”

Chingwalu added that the right to remain silent is always there and the police respect such a right at all times.

While the US Supreme Court does not specify about the exact wording to use when informing a suspect of their rights, there is a set of guidelines that must be followed.

“…The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he or she has the right to remain silent, and that anything the person says will be used against that person in court; the person must be clearly informed that he or she has the right to consult with an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning, and that, if he or she is indigent, an attorney will be provided at no cost to represent her or him,” states the guidelines in part.

Chingwalu says the same is supposed to be followed locally.

“The only problem that comes out of this right is that the direction of the case is mostly obscure and the case becomes a drag because the suspect is saying nothing.

“Otherwise, the necessary procedure is that a police officer introduces himself and tells the suspect the offence he is about to be arrested for and that he or she has the right to remain silent or if he says anything, it would be submitted in court as evidence.

“After that the suspect is arrested, taken to police for charges and later to court for prosecution,” says Chingwalu.

However, he says there are some instances when a suspect is armed and arrested amid violence, and it is in such cases that there is always no time to caution or tell the suspect his or her rights.

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