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Malawi Government Temporarily Suspends Murder Trials

The Malawian government has halted for two years the trial of murder suspects in the country due to what the government says is a lack of funds for operational costs. But human rights groups say the move is an infringement of people’s liberties. Bazuka Mhango is Malawi’s justice and constitutional affairs minister. He explains to VOA English to Africa reporter James Butty his government’s decision to suspend murder trials.

“We have accumulated over the years a number of cases which have not been tried, and this is how this project was conceived to say lets clear the backlog. But the normal trials for murder cases are running like any other criminal cases that from time to time arise. But we were trying to clear the backlog which had accumulated over those years.”

Mhango rejects suggestionS the government’s decision was prejudicial to those awaiting trial on murder charges.

“This government continues to deal with murder trials like any other criminal trials on the schedule set out by the judiciary. We are saying because of the suspension of the funding, thus the program for clearing the backlog is being suspended. But we are still negotiating. We are trying to find the way in which we can resume that. But otherwise, the normal criminal cases are going,” Mhango says.

Mhango denies criticism by human rights groups that Malawi has poor prison facilities and that detaining people there for longer periods may be seeing as subjecting the prisoners to a form of cruelty.

“We have tried to improve the conditions of the prisons throughout the country in keeping with the financial constraints that we have. But the question is, not to be understood that the murder trials are specific group of people that must be accorded priority to any other trial. We are going along with the business of disposing of the criminal trials within the judicial capacity that we have,” Mhango says.

Billy Banda, executive director of Malawi Watch, a human rights organization in Malawi says the government’s decision to suspend trial of murder suspects is an infringement of people’s rights.

“It’s a sad development for the nation because the government was supposed to provide adequate mechanism to ensure that all trials, not only murder cases, but all trials are given due attention because wee are afraid that holding people for too long in custody is not ideal; it is not quite health for the governance in this country because it may viewed as an infringement of people’s liberties. And at the same time, we are looking at the prison conditions. The environment is not healthy; the facilities provided are quite poor. And therefore if people are being kept in custody for quite long, it may be seeing as if those people are being subjected unnecessarily to cruelty, and it’s a breach of one of the government’s principles of administration of justice.”

Banda says he understands the government’s argument about the lack of funding from donors. But he says the government should not put the complete burden of funding its justice system on donors alone.

“We do understand that there is a resource constraint in this country, but however the government is supposed to plan in its annual budget to show that it is quite committed. The donors should only come in to support the process which was already underway but not necessarily the government to put the whole burden on the donors,” Banda says.

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