Blantyre-based Centre for Human Rights, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), an NGO which champions the rights of prisoners and vulnerable citizens, says most prisoners are unaware of their right to bail, a condition that leads to congestion in the prisons.
Malawi’s prisons hold over 12,000 against a projected population of 5,500.
The NGO is running a Bail Education Project through which it discovered that 75 percent of prisoners were ignorant of their right to bail.
Coordinator for the project, Charlotte Mackenzie, said during a training session of magistrates from Blantyre courts, said the project is aimed at increasing the amount of bail applica¬tions made at the first court appearance.
She added that this will be done by increas¬ing awareness of the right to bail for those going through the legal process and encouraging co-operation between the courts, the police and the prison service in reducing the amount of people on remand in prison.
“By training the magistrates, we hope to increase bail applications and as a result reduce overcrowding and congestion in prison,” Mack¬enzie said.
The project, funded by Matrix Chambers in London, also seeks to engage magistrates on con¬cerns raised by prisoners regarding perceptions on impartiality.
CHREAA executive director Victor Mhango said, among other issues, prisoners were uncom¬fortable with the manner in which magistrates and state prosecutors interact during trials.
“We have been working with prisoners who raised concerns that when they seek bail in court, they are presumed guilty.
“Also, the prisoners said they are uncomfort¬able with the interaction between Police prosecu¬tors and magistrates as they feel this jeopardises the magistrates’ independence,” Mhango said.
He said that another dimension of the project is to ensure that prisoners who have no legal rep¬resentation in court are treated in the same man¬ner as those that are represented by lawyers.
Mhango said the prisons throughout Mala¬wi were overcrowded “due to the large propor¬tion of people imprisoned unlawfully in pre-trial detention.”
Mackenzie said that Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, about 800 of the 1800 prisoners are currently detained on remand.
“Under Malawian law, the accused, if not released on bail, can only be held on remand for 15 days before they must be brought back to court. Unfortunately, most remandees are not aware of their right to bail or when and how to apply for it, and in many cases, even if granted bail they cannot afford the bond or are unable to provide a surety,” she said.
She said as a result of this, people are im¬prisoned on remand for months or years before they are brought to court to answer their charge.
“This is contravening fundamental domes¬tic and international laws which provide for a trial within a reasonable time and without undue delay,” said Mackenzie.
She said 54 prisoners in Chichiri prison, both male and female, were interviewed on their views and experiences of the court process.
“The three main areas of difficulty men¬tioned by prisoners were bail, cross-examination and mitigation,” she said.
Further research was conducted specifi¬cally addressing prisoners knowledge of issues surrounding bail which highlighted that 75 per¬cent of the prisoners interviewed in Chichiri pris¬on had not been informed of their right to bail at any time before they were taken to prison.
“As a result only 34 percent of the 75 percent, who were not told of their right to bail, made a bail application before being incarcer-ated. However, out of the 25 percent of pris¬oners who were told of their right to bail, 69 percent went on to make a bail application. The research clearly demonstrates that understand¬ing the court process and in particular, your right to bail, increases the amount of bail applications made,” she said.