Martin Soko (not real name) from Kapala Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mthiramanja in Chikwawa is a mob justice survivor. A year ago, he came so close to death over a case of mistaken identity.
“I had gone to Ngabu Market when one person claimed I was the thief who stole at the market the previous week.
“I tried to reason with the people who gathered around but they didn’t believe me. Some people started demanding that they deal with me,” recalls Soko.
He says the people started beating him up until the police rushed to scene upon being informed by some people about what was brewing at the market.
“I sustained serious injuries and was hospitalised for two weeks. But I heard that the suspected thief was caught three days after my beating while selling the stolen items within the district,” he says.
Having seen mob justice first hand, Soko honestly says it is awful and too easy for innocent people to become victims.
The case of Soko is just one among many cases of mob justices happening in Malawi. Statistics from the police show an upsurge in mob violence.
For instance, in April this year, two suspected armed robbers were hacked to death in Chiputula Township in Mzuzu after they were caught robbing a certain retail shop.
A similar incident happened in Machinjiri Township in Blantyre few days later where an angry mob burnt to death two suspected thieves.
Deputy National Police Spokesperson Thomeck Nyaude says Malawi has already registered high numbers of mob justice in this year’s first quarter.
According to Nyaude, so far, the Central Region lead the pack with 13 cases while Southern and Northern regions have recorded four cases each. The Eastern Region has registered one case in this quarter with all the cases claiming a total of 22 lives.
“This is an increase compared to last year when 15 cases were recorded within the same period,” Nyaude says.
Twenty-nine cases of mob justice were registered in 2016. But with the first four months of 2017 having already registered more than three-quarters of last year’s figure, there are fears that this year’s numbers may be on the higher side, a situation Nyaude says is worrying.
He says impatience among communities is leading many people taking the law into their hands.
“Many feel that justice is not taking its course; that the police are not doing enough by releasing suspects just after two days.
“But people should know that issues of justice do not start and end with the police. We only do arrests and investigations. After that the court takes over and it is the one that decides whether a suspect should be granted bail or not,” Nyaude says.
Chisomo Kaufulu Kumwenda, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Southern Region Human Rights Coordinator says there is no ‘justice’ in mob justice.
“We should not even refer to it as mob justice but outright mob killings. There is no justification whatsoever for such killings. However, we cannot also be out-rightly dismissive of these occurrences,” she says.
Kumwenda says it is high time government, law enforcement authorities and human rights organisations seriously reflected on the underlying reasons for this trend, saying merely denouncing the practice has proven to be an insufficient deterrent.
Justice Link Executive Director Justin Dzonzi says shocking and provocative crime like gruesome murders, armed robberies could be the source of mob justice because such crimes incite anger in people.
“Recurrent crimes of this nature may gradually build public anger which erupts into mob justice or similar acts of violence against suspected perpetrators,” Dzonzi says.
He, however, says that is not justification for individuals to take the law into their own hands.
While he bemoans the increase in reported incidents of mob justice, Dzonzi offers an insight into other factors that could be behind this increase.
It may either mean that Malawi has simply improved on reporting of violent incidents while the actual prevalence of such incidents has not necessarily increased; or it may mean mob justice is on the rise or indeed a combination of both increased reporting and incidents of mob justice, Dzonzi suggests.
He adds: “Without vouching for the actual causes, I would opine that the festering corruption in the law enforcement agencies could be fuelling public discontentment with the formal justice system, resulting in people taking the law into their own hands.”
But one thing for sure is that cases of these acts are increasing and the question could be what should be done to address this challenge?
Dzonzi is of the view that there is a need of rooting out corruption in the criminal justice system and ensure that judicial organs maintain utmost integrity when dealing with criminal law to avoid inciting public anger on suspected perpetrators of various crimes.
Another intervention is civic educating members of the public to understand the legal framework anchoring criminal justice in Malawi, according to Dzonzi.
“They need to acquire the general legal literacy, on how courts and other judicial organs operate in the provision of judicial services for them to appreciate and understand some decisions and rulings courts make.”
Some interventions to reverse the trend are being undertaken by some organisations working towards promoting human rights in the country, according to Chisomo Kaufulu Kumwenda of MHRC.
She cites her own organisation MHRC, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Centre for Human Rights Education which are working towards strengthening the linkages and working relationships between the police and the communities.
Kumwenda says some of the activities include undertaking investigations on some incidences of mob killings to better understand the dynamics around it and what can be done to address the problem and conducting community awareness campaigns on access to justice and the role of law enforcement authorities.
Trainings have also been conducted with law enforcement agencies like the police and the courts on human rights-based approaches when discharging their duties.
“The idea is for them to sustain credibility, integrity and trust when working with suspects, victims and members of the community in general,” she says.
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