Salimon Chitedze, a 26-year-old fisherman, was remanded at Zomba Central Prison for close to three weeks without being arraigned before a court of law after he was arrested for allegedly indecently assaulting his sister.
On our visit to the correctional facility on October 13, Chitedze said his brother-in-law had handed him over to police on September 26.
“From that time, no one has come forward to testify against me,” he said. “I don’t know when I will be out and whether I will be free again or when I will be taken to court.”
The fact that the State was not being successful in bringing to court witnesses who would testify against the suspect meant, Chitedze would remain confined within the tall red walls of one of Malawi’s oldest prisons.
There is a law which stipulates that an accused person who has been arrested must be taken to court within 48 hours after the arrest unless an extension to keep the suspect is granted by the court.
No such permission was granted in Chitedze’s case and he is not alone. We learnt that there were suspects who remained in custody even after the expiry of their remand warrants.
And Commissioner of Prisons responsible for Farms and Industries, Clement Kainja, acknowledged that prisons sometimes kept suspects who never appeared before courts of law.
“There are times when partners in the criminal justice system such as the police come and dump people in prisons and sometimes such people are not taken to court in time,” Kainja said.
These are often, if not always, suspects who cannot afford to hire lawyers whose rights are violated by officers who were supposed to be upholding them.
Human rights experts and activists are of the view that such is the case due to several factors including ignorance of the law by the suspects.
On his part, High Court judge Mzonde Mvula, who at the time of our visit to Zomba Central Prison was Chief Resident Magistrate responsible for the Eastern Region, also agreed that some accused persons are remanded against the presumption that someone is innocent until proven otherwise by the courts.
Minors are not spared. There are cases where they are kept in the same police or prison cells with adults without even being taken to court.
In Salima District, where there is no prison, suspects are kept in cells at the district’s police station where we found a 17-year-old who had stayed in a cell together with adults for more than a week.
He was set free after the Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (Pasi) intervened in his case.
Others, too, have benefited through similar interventions and are finally out of illegal incarceration.
Partly, there are camp courts that allow magistrates to visit prisons once in a while and analyse multiple cases at once.
Through this programme, championed by Pasi with funds from the United Nations Development Programme, multiple suspects who are illegally detained get set free through bail and other determinations.
Kainja recalls that over 20 detainees have been freed through the camp courts.
Pasi also provides paralegals that follow up on cases in courts, police stations and prisons to ensure justice is served especially for the less-privileged.
The paralegals also teach suspects how they can present their cases before courts of law and how to apply for bail.
“The work the paralegals are doing through Pasi is having a huge impact. They are a very good partner to us,” Kainja said.
Mvula, who at times used to sit in camp courts, pointed out that the programme allows courts to locate cases that have taken time without being attended to.
“Sometimes we would conduct the camp courts unannounced and identify suspects and enquire from the police to find out why they are being kept without a warrant. There are situations where warrants expire but the suspects are not taken to court to have their cases processed,” Mvula said.
Through one of the camp courts, Mvula ordered that Chitedze should be granted bail.
Pasi National Programmes Coordinator, Chimwemwe Ndalahoma, is of the view that there are a lot of people who are not supposed to be in places of detention.
“The first step is to check if the remand warrant has expired and if there are other issues, for instance, numerous adjournments which are to the disadvantage of the accused person,” Ndalahoma said.
Aged suspects, the ill, women, children and other vulnerable groups are also targeted by Pasi in the programme.
Mathews Kasanda is a Journalist who has recently joined Times Group Newsroom as an Intern. He is an outstanding media practitioner and in 2014, Media Institute of Southern Africa awarded him the Best Print Media Education Journalist of the Year accolade.