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Strike Paralyzes Malawi's Judicial Services

  • Lameck Masina

A week-long strike by the support staff of Malawi's judiciary system has paralyzed the courts, causing overcrowding in police cells and the indefinite suspension of major cases - including government corruption trials. Court marshals, clerks and messengers are demanding the 30 percent salary increases promised by the government two years ago.

Chanting and singing around the court premises has become a pastime activity for the striking court workers since the onset of a sit-in last week.

Linley Hebert, a spokesperson for the striking workers, told VOA the strike is a result of the government’s failure to honor a 2012 agreement.

“In October [this year], the government reviewed the salaries of the civil servants, but we were not included in that revision," Hebert said. "Yet in 2012, we had an agreement that each time they are revising the salaries of the civil servants, [they will be increasing our salaries as well]. So, [after adhering to the agreement in 2013], we are surprised to see that this time we are left out.”

Government authorities say the failure to increase judicial workers’ salaries this year is largely because of financial constraints, following a donor aid freeze against Malawi's government. The freeze is a result of a government financial scandal in which more than $30 million was looted from government coffers.

Ministry of Finance spokesperson Nations Msowoya told a local radio station it is hard for the government to meet the workers' demand.

"It is difficult to promise what the treasury will do. But suffice to say that the prevailing economic circumstances and budgetary constraints will make a little bit difficult for the treasury to bow down to the demands," “Msowoya said.

But according to Hebert, the strikers will not resume work until their demands are met.

“Since I was born [there has been] no time the government said it had some money. It has its own means [of finding the money] and it will find the same means to give us the money," Hebert insisted.

The ongoing strike is hampering progress of trials, as court operations remain suspended.

Several trials, including that of former justice minister Ralph Kasambara, who is answering charges in connection with the financial scandal, were indefinitely suspended last week.

Police are complaining of congestion in jail cells, as no suspects are being taken to court. Malawi police spokesperson Rhoda Manjolo told VOA the only option they have is “giving police bail to those with minor offenses.”

Human rights campaigners and legal experts say the strike is contributing to human rights violations.

“There are those people who have to be taken to court within 48 hours," noted Lawyer George Kadzipatike who works in a private practice in the northern city of Mzuzu. "We cannot make application for them to be granted bail. There are those people who do not want to live with their partners, they would like the court to decree that they be divorced, we cannot file any petition through the courts.”

Government authorities say closed door negotiations to resolve the matter continue in the capital, Lilongwe.

But the striking workers told VOA whatever the case, they will accept nothing short of a 30 percent increase in their salaries.

A similar strike lasted three months in 2012 after the magistrates and judges joined the labor action.