As the first-ever judiciary strike in Malawi enters its fourth week, the doors to over 200 courts remain closed and justice has generally disappeared from the docket.
The industrial action began Jan. 9 when judiciary staff themselves became claimants, calling for the realization of the higher rate of pay and better working conditions promised by parliament in 2006.
The breach – K1.2 billion from July 2006 when parliament approved the salary increases to December 2011 according to a judiciary salary analysis document from the treasury – is being criticized as a violation of labour rights.
The case has an important caveat – each day that the judiciary strike for labour rights continues the rights of hundreds of detainees and prisoners to access the courts in furtherance of civil or criminal justice, to an effective remedy and to economic activity are also being ignored.
National Police Public Relations Officer Assistant Commissioner of Police Davie Chingwalu described the effects of the labour dispute as simply “uncontrollable.”
“As police the courts are our main disposal of suspects,” said Chingwalu. “At the moment with the judiciary strike our hands are tied and the national picture as regards to handling of suspects is very difficult. We are forced to send those suspects with bigger offenses to prison although we are aware that there is congestion. What else can we do?”
Blantyre Police Station Assistant Public Relations Officer Sgt. Lameck Thembachako echoed Chingwalu’s concern, saying that in the commercial city-centre overcrowding has “reached the climax.”
According to Thembachako, Blantyre police cells are already accommodating more than 25 detainees per cell instead of the recommended maximum of 14 – and the number is increasing daily.
In an attempt to cope he said the Malawi Police Service (MPS) has been transferring detainees from overcrowded Blantyre cells to substations at Soche, Milare, Ndirande, Chilomoni and Chilobwe.
Now that even the substation cells are full, he said the MPS is planning to create “other buildings,” specifying an unused warehouse on the parent station grounds.
“The cells are now full. They are not comfortable, they are under panic, even ventilation is not that good,” Thembachako said, adding that he expects overcrowding will have negative long-term effects on the health of detainees.
“If police have to keep you for more than two months or four months without facing justice, anything can happen to your health,” he said. “Just sitting in a small room without getting sunshine or without proper ventilation – I think that by the end of the strike you will find two or three suspects suffering with TB or other diseases.”
At Zomba, Chichiri and Chikwawa prisons in the southern region they are also experiencing a serious shortage of space and other resources.
An inmate at Zomba Maximum Security Prison who asked to remain anonymous said, “the problem is that police have started bringing people here on remand almost every day. People are staying here in prison on remand with small cases that the police could easily give bail for, but they are just keeping them here, and because of that nobody is going out unless their sentence expires.”
According to the inmate the overcrowding has resulted in food rations being cut in half, with prisoners receiving only one meal per day and portion sizes being reduced to an estimated 9 grams of nsima and one small cup of beans.
The inmate also said the number of inmates has increased during the judiciary strike from 1,791 on December 18, 2011 to 2,132 on February 2, 2012.
He said this means that 249 new remandees have been brought to the prison since the strike began on January 9.
With judiciary staff showing no signs of returning to work without a settlement, the onus is on the executive to negotiate a plan of repayment and answer the appeals of the hundreds of detainees and prisoners who are suffering silently as a result of the arrears.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
With files from Malawi News’ Archibald Kasakura.