Do Malawians know their rights?

Alfred Mangazawo of Ndirande Township, Blantyre, is an alleged victim of police brutality. He says in May last year, he was woken up in the night and beaten for a crime he did not commit. He was lucky to escape the police’s uncompromising beating. However, when he went to the police station the next day to find out why he was roughed up, he learnt it was a case of mistaken identity.

“Without an apology, I was told to go home because I was not the person they were looking for,” said Mangazawo, adding he was disappointed by the police’s casual approach to the issue.

His arm remains swollen to this day, a constant reminder of his brutal experience with the police. But perhaps he is lucky, because Edson Msiska of Chabisika Village, T/A Chikulamayembe in Rumphi, another alleged victim of police brutality, is not around to tell his story.

The 30-year-old was alleged to have stolen a laptop, home theatre and two pairs of trousers. After spending a week in police custody, on January 31 this year, his family was shocked to be told he was dead.

A post-mortem by pathologist Charles Dzamalala revealed that Msiska died from various degrees of assault (severe traumatic intracranial haemorrhage).

In search of justice and truth, family members reported the case to Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC). Eventually six police officers were arrested. They were taken to court and are currently on bail awaiting further proceedings of the case.

MHRC says it has, over the years, handled a number of cases of suspects whose rights were abused while under police custody.

The commission’s executive secretary Grace Malera says the organisation faces challenges to timely and effectively conclude its investigations, often due to lack of or limited cooperation from the concerned authorities; hence, most investigations of such cases are still on-going.

“There is a growing body of evidence that supports the view that most people know or are aware of the human rights to which they are entitled. However, the challenge that remains is that the human rights information dissemination approaches have not been empowering enough as to enable people to demand these rights from duty bearers or press for accountability from duty bearers on the protection and fulfilment of these rights.

“Thus to improve this situation, there is need for all stakeholders to intensify civic education on human rights and move beyond mere public sensitisation approaches to transformative approaches, whereby the information disseminated empowers people as claim holders to claim and demand these rights,” says Malera.

Because of failure of procedural arrests, most people do not know the person who arrested them, making it difficult to solve their cases when complaints are lodged.

While it is not easy to demand the name of a police officer, human activist lawyer Chrispine Sibande says suspects must pay attention to any detail about their arrests. This, he says, makes it easier for third parties to intervene.

“The suspects are vulnerable and at a very big disadvantage when they are in custody. The advice to suspects is that they should be recording times when arrested, the name of police station and time of abuse. If need be, they should seek to meet the officer-in-charge of the station where they are being held.

“Where necessary, they should be able to get the name of police officers on duty and indeed the person who has abused them. While in custody they should also ask to be taken to hospital. If there is no help while in custody they should bring the matter to the attention of the court, friends and relatives and human rights organisations,” he says.

But Sibande notes that people can only act on their rights if they know them. He says there is critical need in the country to civic educate each other on issues of human rights to make sure human rights principles are known and appreciated at all levels of society.

“The suspect can seek remedies in court under Section 46 of the Constitution of Malawi or complain to Malawi Human Rights Commission or Ombudsman under Section 15 of the Constitution of Malawi. Suspects can even complain to senior police officers such as commissioners, deputy commissioners and officers-in-charge or station officers. Human rights are not only about police and suspects but are about respect of everybody, whether they are detained or free.

“Malawi has a good framework for promotion and protection of rights. This includes the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of Malawi from sections 15 to 46, international human rights instruments which we have signed and ratified, Acts of Parliament, court judgements and government policies. There are enough tools but what the citizens need is information,” says Sibande.

National police spokesperson Dave Chingwalu, said in an earlier interview that the police respect human rights at all times.

He said of the rights of crime suspects: “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 has the right to remain silent or if he says anything it would be given in court as evidence.

“After that an arrest is made, taken to police for charges and later to court for prosecution,” he explained

However, he said in instances when a suspect is armed and arrested amid violence, there is no time to caution or tell the suspect his or her rights.

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