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“He was torturing a suspect before my very eyes”

An interview with Global Legal Empowerment Network Member Chimwemwe Ndlahoma

Chimwemwe Ndalahoma is a Paralegal Coordinator at the Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (PASI) in Malawi.  As Paralegal Coordinator, Chimwemwe provides legal advice and assistance to paralegals who work primarily in the criminal justice system. He also leads the PASI Village Mediation Program, where trained village-based paralegals help disputants resolve criminal and civil disputes outside of the courts.

“A LOT OF MY LIFE I HAVE LIVED IN A POLICE COMPOUND.  My father was a police officer.  When I was young, he was one of the leading criminal investigation officers in Malawi. He was a CID, let me put it that way.

One night he took me to a police station where he was to interview a subject.  What I witnessed was horrible. He was torturing a suspect before my eyes, and I was terrified.

If a person is imprisoned or detained unlawfully or inappropriately, and that person is a breadwinner, it means deepened household poverty.

The man’s hand was tied, you know, he was handcuffed against the table. My father was whipping him up with a hosepipe, you know, forcing him to make a confession. I suspect that because of lack of investigating skills they wanted to use such shortcuts. Our police officers at the time did not have knowledge; they did not have skills.

You know, a lot of our police officers, they tend to rely on confession-based evidence. A lot of them are doing preliminary investigations to establish the cause of the offense. So my father – as someone who worked for the police for a long time – I suspect he did not have investigative skills, and that’s why I witnessed such a horrible scene where a suspect was being tortured in my presence.

That motivated me to have a passion for working with people in conflict with the law.

At the moment, our governments have got a very big problem in administering the criminal justice system because of lack of resources. The few resources we have need to be put to good use.

A lot of the people that we have come across have been made to confess to offenses they never committed.

If the formal justice system is clogged, it will mean a lot of people are going to be affected.  It impacts a lot on individual poverty, as well as public health and national development.

If a person is imprisoned or detained unlawfully or inappropriately, and that person is a breadwinner, it means deepened household poverty. At the same time, the cost to the government of keeping that person in prison, feeding that person in prison, including the cost of administering the case, is so huge.

And so we need to think of effective solutions, and one example is the Village Mediation Program, where minor cases can be mediated to where people find the case to be culturally acceptable. It is a win-win situation, and an alternative for our people who live in the rural communities who do not understand, you know, the implications of taking the matter through the formal justice system.

We are excited with the law the way the government has recognized the work of paralegals.

Governments are now realizing that they cannot go it alone and that they need people to help them sort out human rights problems in the formal justice system.

Paralegals in police stations are now helping people who have been arrested to access immediate justice. You know, a person has been arrested, most especially at that front line is where a lot of abuses occur. The presence of a paralegal officer at the police station will help mitigate some of the problems suspects endure during that process.

This has never happened elsewhere but it is happening in Malawi, where paralegals are allowed to sit in on interviews as an observer.

In a situation where a suspect has alleged before a magistrate that he was tortured, a police officer prosecuting the case could request a magistrate to attend the matter, and then invite a paralegal to come and testify what he observed in that interview.

At the same time, paralegals are also monitoring the situation of holding suspects for a long time on the pretense of treating the investigation. This practice is no longer acceptable by the law, and the paralegals are there to monitor whether there is adherence to the constitutional provision that says suspects should only be held within a specific period of time.

Paralegals in police stations are now helping people who have been arrested to access immediate justice.

We have observed that this is a fundamental way of respecting suspects’ rights.  Because you know, a lot of the people that we have come across have been made to confess to offenses they never committed.

This has not only helped the suspects, it has also helped to improve the service delivery of the Malawi police service. It reduces the burden of keeping people for long in police custody. At the same time, it frees the minimal resources that do exist for real and serious cases.

So the police service is very supportive of the work of the paralegals because they have seen that the paralegals are not there to spy on their work, but rather to complement their work, and so they are happy to have the paralegals around.

I am excited about the change that has taken place since I witnessed that horrible instant with my father. Governments are now realizing that they cannot go it alone and that they need people to help them sort out human rights problems in the formal justice system.”

Chimwemwe Ndlahoma, as told to Bremen Donovan

Watch other conversations in the African Voices series.

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