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Malawi President Pardons Prisoners to Reduce COVID-19 Spread

FILE - Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera (L) and first lady Monica Chakwera depart following his inauguration at the Kamuzu Baracks, at Malawi Defense Force Headquarters, in Lilongwe, July 6, 2020.

Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera pardoned 499 inmates Friday as part of an effort to deal with COVID-19 inside the country’s overcrowded prisons. But rights activists say the number of pardoned prisoners is too low.

The action comes a few days after prisoner rights groups wrote President Lazarus Chakwera asking him to consider releasing some prisoners to decongest prisons.

Malawi’s prisons recently reported an increase in COVID-19 cases that forced authorities to suspend family visits with inmates.

Chimwemwe Shaba is the national spokesperson for Malawi Prison Services. He told VOA Saturday the situation continues to deteriorate.

“Currently the national tally is at 155 positive [cases] of COVID-19. However, we have registered two deaths" Shaba said. "And out of the 155 figure, 21 are [prison] officers and the rest are inmates.”

Shaba says prisoners will be released after special consideration, regardless of their COVID-19 status.

“These are prisoners who have committed trivial offenses, and they served half of their sentences, and in the course of serving half of their sentences, they have displayed reformative behavior" Shaba said.

Malawi prisons hold 14,000 inmates, which is almost triple the recommended capacity of 5,000 prisoners.

Victor Mhango is executive director for the Center for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance in Malawi, and he is among seven rights campaigners calling for further decongestion of the prisons.

He says he welcomes the pardons but with reservations.

“In terms of figures, we are not happy. We feel that figure is just a small figure that cannot change anything. According to the World Health Organization, at least people should be one meter apart," Mhango said. "That is the spacing we will also require in prison because the world health organization did not say that this one is only for applying to people outside the prison.”

Malawi’s Home Affairs minister, Richard Chikwanda Banda, told VOA that creating recommended space in prisons cannot happen overnight.

He says that instead, the president also has reduced sentences for every prisoner by six months — a move he says will gradually help reduce the prison population.