USA’s Department of State has decried continued violations of human rights in this country as recorded in 2020, with human rights groups expressing frustration that most issues raised are not new.
In its 2020 Country Human Rights Report for Malawi, the departrment identifies thorny and recurring issues such as harsh and life-threatening prison and detention centre conditions, arbitrary arrests or detentions, as well as significant acts of corruption.
It also decries lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women and criminalisation of same-sex sexual conduct, which was also an issue during a periodic review for Malawi at the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March.
The report observes that in some cases, the government took steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, but impunity remained a problem.
The report reads, in part: “Prison and detention centre conditions remained harsh and potentially life-threatening due to overcrowding and poor sanitation; inadequate food, potable water, heating, ventilation, lighting, health care and torture.
“In December, the Malawi Prison Service reported a total prison population of 14 500 in a space with a designed holding capacity of 7 000. Police held detainees in police stations for long periods, beyond the legal limit of 48 hours, which contributed to pervasive cell overcrowding.”
In police detention centres, the report reveals that children are not always held separately from adults, basic emergency medical care is only available in the daytime, and that daily prison rations are meagre.
On trials, the report observes that the judicial system was inefficient and handicapped by serious weaknesses, including poor record keeping; shortage of judges, attorneys, and other trained personnel; heavy caseloads and corruption.
“The Judiciary’s budgetary and administrative problems led to backlogs that effectively denied expeditious trials for most defendants and kept some defendants in pretrial detention for long periods,” adds the report.
Women, children too affected
While the law prohibits harmful social, cultural or religious practices, including widow-cleansing and widow-inheritance, the report notes that in some areas, some widows were being forced to have sex with male in-laws while in other cases, widows were being inherited.
It also decries high rape and defilement cases, but also lenient sentences for offenders, domestic violence, especially wife-beating was common, although it said victims rarely sought legal recourse.
The report also identified societal stigma related to disability and the lack of accessibility to public buildings and transportation as negatively affecting the ability of persons with disabilities to obtain services and obtain and maintain employment.
Institute for Policy Interaction executive director Rafiq Hajat said while the Constitution contains the Bill of Rights, there are no prescribed penalties on violation of most of them, which makes it easy for government to get away with violations.
He urged the need for civil society to push government to respect such rights, but also for the courts to open up even to the marginalised so that government actions are scrutinised, and those affected get justice.
Said Hajat: “We don’t have penalties for violations, so government can ignore those rights and unless the person who is affected has the power and the money to go to court, can wait for the case to take place and face the government.”
Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance executive director of the Victor Mhango said Malawi was not taking issues of congestion in prisons seriously.
“We used to have a vibrant community service in the 2000s, it really helped to de-congest the prisons, but then it was just a project. It was then fused in government system and stopped functioning because of lack of funding,” he lamented.
On his part, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation executive director Michael Kaiyatsa said while the report is generally good, it has overlooked some serious human rights violations that occurred in 2020, such as killings on the basis of witchcraft accusations.
Government spokesperson Gospel Kazako, who is also Minister of Information, did not respond to our questions by press time as he needed to get more information from relevant offices.
However, he has previously stressed that the Tonse Alliance administration respects and upholds various human rights and freedoms.
Ministry of Homeland Security spokesperson Andrew Nyondo said government was exploring ways on de-congesting prisons, and some measures that are undertaken periodically include presidential pardons.
“But we also need all other players to join government in sensitising people out there to stop crimes. Some people get to prison, and when they are released, the go again to commit crimes.
“So sensitisation is key to ensuring that not many people commit crimes, and that means few people being sent to prison, which is one way of de-congesting the prisons,” he said.