The High Court in Lilongwe has sentenced to death four people while four others have been handed life sentences for killing a 21-year-old woman with albinism in Dowa in 2016.
The Association of Persons with Albinism (Apam) national coordinator Overstone Kondowe and rights activist and country director for Standing Voice Boniface Massa have since applauded the country’s judicial system for the sentence, saying it will serve as a warning to would-be offenders.
The slain woman, Enelesi Nkhata, was a niece to one of the convicts, Gerald Phiri, who connived with the others to kill her for rituals.
The court on Friday heard that Phiri picked the woman from Dedza to Madisi, Dowa on the understanding that he had found her a job suitable for her qualification—Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE)—when in fact it was a mission to terminate her life.
After citing a number of previous judgements that justified a death sentence, Justice Chifundo Kachale said he settled for the same penalty as the appropriate punishment, considering the gravity of the offence.
The State prayed for a maximum prison term of 50 years for murder and 15 years for human trafficking, but the judge had a different view.
“The court hereby condemns you Gerald Phiri to suffer death in the manner prescribed by the law; subject…to the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code,” reads part of the ruling.
The same sentence was handed to three other convicts—Medson Madzialenga, Jesmon Baluwa and Steven Ching’ombe.
The four have also been sentenced to life imprisonment for the offence of trafficking in person.
The other four, who have also been handed life imprisonment for trafficking in persons are Macdonald Kanyerere, Damiano Phiri, Isaac Msambalume and Damdson Manyani.
In an interview yesterday, Kondowe applauded the sentence, saying it is a positive step in the right direction.
He said: “We know that we have been struggling all along because there are a number of convictions related to these cases. So, this kind of disposal of case acts as a warning to would-be offenders. We need to applaud the judicial system for ensuring that convictions are secured.”
On his part, Massa described the sentence as a victory in the fight against attacks and killings of persons with albinism in the country, which have become rampant in recent years.
Amnesty International released a report in May this year indicating that 22 of the 163 cases reported in Malawi since 2014 have been murders, an indication that little had been done to combat the issue. The report also stated that body parts of people with albinism are seen as magical with their limbs used in witchcraft for good luck or wealth.
Nkhata’s death attracted public anger in 2016. She was initially buried in Madisi, Dowa in her assailants’ home until her remains were exhumed a few days later by Apam in collaboration with various government agencies that wanted to accord her a proper burial.
The reburial ceremony in Dedza was characterised by uncontrollable wailing and eulogies and was attended by government officials and non-governmental organisations.
The attendees included then Deputy Inspector General of Police responsible for operations Duncan Mwapasa, who is now the Inspector General. He was accompanied by a dozen other police officers, district commissioners for Lilongwe and Dedza, Senior Chief Kaphuka of Dedza and directors from the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare.
This is the third death sentence handed down this year for killings of people with albinism. In May, Willard Mikaele, who killed Mphatso Pensulo, 19, was also sentenced to death.
And in August this year, the High Court in Mchinji sentenced to death Douglas Mwale, Fontino Folosani and Sophie Jere, after being found guilty of murder and possessing human tissue of people with albinism.
However, it remains to be seen if the four will receive the death penalty, as capital punishment has been a controversial subject in Malawi for a long time.
In October this year, the European Union (EU) described the death penalty as evil and urged Malawi to abolish it.
Speaking during the commemoration of World Day Against Death Penalty, EU Deputy Ambassador Aurelie Valtat said death penalty is not a solution to any problem, and appealed to Malawians to continue lobbying for the abolition of the penalty so that those accused should not feel rejected.
She said: “It is a cruel treatment that puts a person into psychological torture and trauma to families.”
But earlier in 2018, President Peter Mutharika, perplexed by the continuing killings of persons with albinism, called for “honest” national dialogue on whether the country should implement the death penalty on individuals convicted of murder.
Mutharika created a commission of inquiry in March 2018 after a number of people with albinism were attacked. He had come under fire for not adequately responding to the issue.
Malawi has laws that empower presidents to sign for the death penalty in murder cases. However, since attaining democracy in 1994, no president has ever signed the death penalty and in worst cases, most sentences have been commuted to life imprisonment.
But in view of the abductions and murder of persons with albinism, Mutharika said he wanted the country to dialogue whether the death penalty should now be implemented.
In a statement, the President said he was aware that there are some stakeholders who feel passionately that implementing the death penalty on individuals sentenced to death can deter would-be offenders from attacking persons with albinism.
“On the other hand, the President is also aware of the international community’s stand against the death penalty. These two viewpoints are on opposite extreme end of each other; hence, the need for dialogue and a national consensus,” read the statement.
In an earlier interview, Malawi Human Right Commission (MHRC) executive secretary David Nungu observed that the upsurge in cases of killings of persons with albinism makes it difficult to balance the protection of people with albinism and those that are being accused of murder.
“There are so many arguments whether death penalty is effective to deter those killing people with albinism or [whether] our courts are competent enough to convict people who eventually would be put to death,” he said.
In 2016 at the height of killings and abductions of persons with albinism, members of Parliament (MPs) expressed desire that people found guilty of killing persons with albinism should get life imprisonment or face the death penalty.
This was after the High Court in Mzuzu imposed a maximum sentence of life in prison on Samuel Kaumba for being found guilty of attempting to murder an 11-year-old boy with albinism.
In 2015, the High Court freed 25 convicts who were on death row following the court’s decision to rehear homicide cases at its Zomba District Registry through a Death Row Inmates Resentencing Project facilitated by MHRC.
The rehearing exercise followed a 2011 review of Section 210 of the Penal Code that declared mandatory imposition of death penalty unconstitutional after some people argued that they could not be on death row as Malawi did not provide the ultimate sentence.