By Deogratias Mmana:
No judge has been assigned yet to the K2.4 billion cashgate case involving former Budget Director Paul Mphwiyo and 18 others after retired Judge Esme Chombo left the case, Malawi News has learnt.
Chombo’s tenure of office came to an end in June this year and President Lazarus Chakwera has since appointed her to the diplomatic mission.
Chombo handled the matter, criminal case number 35 of 2014, for over five years, from 2015 to May this year when she delivered her last ruling on an application by the suspects that she should recuse herself from the case.
She dismissed the application on May 20, 2021 and said that she had handed over the case to the Judge President for direction.
Supreme and High Court Registrar Gladys Gondwe could not immediately spell out latest developments on the case when Malawi News approached her this week.
“On the judge taking over the matter, I should be able to advise you by the end of next week. We await completion of some formalities,” she said.
As the case drags, government is spending more resources and there are fears that it may spend more than the K2.4 billion in court.
“On costing of the trial over the past six years, I am also unable to immediately advise because mostly we do this upon completion,” Gondwe said.
She added: “Partial [completion] is doable now but we will require a bit of time as currently, our team in Lilongwe is working from home owing to closure of the premises. Of course that will have to be added to what the State has spent for precise determination of what government as such has spent this far.”
As the case is now in its sixth year, Gondwe said the Judiciary will ensure speedy trial.
“You may wish to know that numerous factors influence the pace, some of which are beyond the court itself. But we will certainly do our part to ensure all the necessities for speedy conduct of trial are in place. This includes assignment of research officers and court reporters to the case.”
Meanwhile, Malawi Law Society (MLS) has expressed worry over the slow pace of the case.
MLS president Patrick Mpaka said that delay in delivery of justice makes it lucrative and motivating for criminals but subjects innocent suspects to humiliation.
“It is axiomatic that justice delayed is justice denied.
Delays of this kind in criminal justice not only make it lucrative and motivating for criminals but also subjects innocent suspects to humiliation thereby exposing the state to possible insurmountable civil claims on the tax payers account afterwards,” he said.
In Chombo’s last ruling, one of the issues Mphwiyo and others raised for wanting Chombo to recuse herself was “pressure of time on her.”
But Chombo explained the progress of the case from 2015.
According to Chombo, court records show that the processes in the case started in September 2015 before her. The accused persons took plea around November 2016.
Due to the defence objection with reasons to the Prosecution’s application for a 10-day sitting each month, the trial judge had, whilst reserving the mandate to review the decision in the interests of justice, granted a five day sitting each month from November 2016 to around November 2018.
By November 2018, the trial, including the pre-trial processes, had taken around three years.