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Police officers must indeed pay for July 20 killings

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The conviction of a policeman in the cold-blood murder of an unarmed and peaceful citizen is a welcome development.

On Tuesday, Justice Fiona Mwale of the High Court in Lilongwe found Constable Steward Lobo guilty of gunning down George Thekere on July 20, 2011, the day Malawians poured to the streets to demonstrate against the excesses that the administration showed.

This conviction, and the others that may follow, will help trigger-happy police officers to understand the sanctity of life and that not even the law enforcers have a right to take it away.

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Over the years, Malawians have watched helplessly as police officers denied them their rights. These rights range from right to bail to right to access justice.

Several Malawians, especially the poor and the voiceless, continue to pay for a police bail, which is supposed to be accessed for free, some conditions considered.

But some police officers have turned issuance of police bail into a money minting scheme by exploiting the ignorance of Malawians.

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This conviction marks a watershed in the administration of justice in this country.

Most police officers take advantage of their uniform to harass residents and extort money from them. In worst cases, the officers have gone away with murder.

Indeed legal experts have always argued that the only way to end impunity among police officers is to sue and hold them accountable, as individuals, for crimes they commit while on duty.

It is common knowledge that management of the Malawi Police Service (MPS) does not impose meaningful sanctions on errant officers. MPS transfers the burden of proof from its own ranks to the poor complainant by demanding evidence. It is inconceivable how MPS expects victimised ordinary Malawians to remember to gather evidence as they are tortured.

When MPS decides to be a little bit kind, it merely assures the complainants that it is investigating issues only to end up transferring the offending officers.

This breeds impunity as the officers continue to commit the crimes knowing well that they will not account for their actions.

The tendency by the MPS is also counterproductive as the action only means postponing a lasting solution and transferring a problem from one policing area to another.

But what the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions has done by securing a conviction against a serving police officer has brought hope to Malawians.

One can only be optimistic that justice will continue to take its course on this matter. MPS is not a trade union or a civil society network where officers base their actions on reason and democratic principles: they operate on orders.

It would be important to ensure that the senior officers who gave orders to open fire are also brought to book. Unless that happens, the impunity will just transform and continue, using some other junior officers.

The citizens who took to the streets on July 20, 2011 were not criminals. Actually, they were law abiding and were simply exercising their right to hold peaceful demonstrations. This right is expressly provided for in the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi.

Peaceful demonstrations are necessary in an open and transparent democracy like the one we all wish to uphold and promote. Peaceful and orderly demonstrations temper the excesses of the executive which often lead to dictatorship and untold misery for the governed.

It is the hope of every democratic Malawian that the other accused persons will also face justice and if found guilty, be punished accordingly.

Time for the executive to use the police to oppress the citizens is long gone. Those who govern must know that they do so on trust and that their continued legitimacy can only be guaranteed upon sustained trust by the governed.

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