People from all classes and walks of life commit crime. Malawians are aware of wealthy criminal suspects, some of whom committed serious crimes such as diversion of government’s millions of Kwachas into their personal accounts.
The citizens are also aware of millionaires who are implicated in murder cases but are walking with the heads high up in the streets of our cities. The suspected criminals are currently out on bail.
While wealthy criminal suspects are out on bail and the law demands that they should be presumed innocent till proven guilty, the same cannot be said of the poor criminal suspects. The mere fact that rich suspects who are facing serious crimes are out on bail while suspected chicken thieves are remanded in prison demonstrates that the rich and the poor access different types of justice.
One wealthy businessman actually went around in Mulanje allegedly boasting that despite defiling a little girl, there is no way he can languish in a police or prison cell. He declared that his financial muscle was stronger than jail keys. True to his word, he was released on bail within a few days to the annoyance of the community in Mulanje. These cited incidents simply mirror the state of our justice delivery system.
The poor experience higher rates of arrests, convictions and long remands and prison sentences while rich criminal suspects, even if they defraud government of millions of kwachas, will never see the inside of a prison. Our jails are overflowing with the poor, who cannot afford to hire the services of top-notch lawyers to secure them bail and acquittals.
The story of a villager who accidentally slaughtered his neighbour’s duck mistaking it for his own in Nkhotakota and ended up being remanded in prison for three months is a living example of how the justice system treats the poor.
We believe the observation by Justice Esmie Chombo is correct that some magistrates are fuelling the problem of congestion by denying suspects who commit petty offences bail applications. While we do not expect defilers, rapists and robbers to be given bail, surely those suspected of committing trivial crimes such as stealing one chicken or one cob of maize can be considered for bail.
We urge on those in the judiciary to deal with numerous bottlenecks in our justice delivery system, which include delays in concluding cases as well as the inequality of the treatment meted out to the rich, the poor, the powerful and those without power. Justice Chombo’s assertion testifies the fact that our justice system treats people differently according to their status, which should not be the case.