Police brutality: where is justice?

By Joseph Kayira

Ever increasing instances of police brutality are a sign that while other sectors of democracy are thriving, the law enfor-cers are refusing to embrace change denting a chapter that should have put democracy above dictatorships and police states.

From Malawi to South Africa, Nigeria to the United States, the behaviour of the police has come under the spotlight, highlighting abuses, yet such unbecoming behaviour in most cases, go unpunished. Those that are punished at all, at most, get lenient sentences such as mere suspension.

But cases of police brutality are ever increasing and authorities ought to do something or they will be in for a tough time as people are questioning whether or not the law enforcers are above the law. Take the case of Nigeria where a controversial police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) has been accused of brutality and extrajudicial killings.

For days now students and rights activists have been staging protests calling on government to ban the special police unit that was established to combat armed robberies in Africa’s most populous country.

Worse still, when police could not contain the protests in the capital Lagos, soldiers came in using excessive force, killing at least two and injuring several others.  

Some police officers have been accused of brutality

In Malawi too, there have been reported cases of police brutality compelling human rights groups to call for the prosecution of errant police officers.

In October 2019 at the height of protests calling for the resignation of former Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chair Dr Jane Ansah and former president Peter Mutharika, a police officer was killed by an angry mob in Msundwe trading centre in Lilongwe. The mob had barricaded a busy road between the capital Lilongwe and the western border town of Mchinji. A fierce battle ensued between the police and residents leading to stoning to death of a senior police officer.

The police fled the scene only to come back days later to sexually assault girls and women in the area. The Women Lawyers Association, the Malawi Human Rights Commission and other rights groups condemned the police and called for a prompt investigation into the matter.

The Women Lawyers took the matter to the High Court where judge Kenyatta Nyirenda ordered the police to compensate the 18 girls and women who were sexually assaulted and that the 17 implicated law enforcers be arrested.

In a statement after the ruling, acting United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator to Malawi, Benoit Thiry, hailed the ruling, describing it as an important milestone towards the protection of survivors of sexual violence.

Thiry also saluted women lawyers and rights groups for bringing the case to the attention of the High Court as it reinforced the constitutional right of survivors of sexual violence to access justice.

“Further to this judgment, it is now important that national authorities ensure a prompt, effective and impartial investigation so that all persons suspected of crimes in this case are subjected to criminal processes. Moreover, the survivors should be provided necessary support and assistance.

“The UN reiterates its commitment to continue supporting the Government and the people of Malawi to uphold human rights, in particular to work together to end violence against women and girls throughout the country. Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of equality, development and peace,” Thiry said.

However, up to now, no police officer has been arrested in connection with the case.

Cases of brutality continue to haunt the police service which at some point was drafted into a British funded Police Reform Programme back in mid 90s, after the first multiparty general elections in 1994 that ushered in Bakili Muluzi and the United Democratic Front (UDF). Prior to that, the Malawi Police Force, as it used to be called, was associated with the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) of the old and dictatorial tendencies of one-party rule since 1964 under Malawi’s founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

In February last year, Buleya Lule, a crucial suspect in the murder and disappearance of a boy with albinism in Dedza, died in police custody. A report by pathologist Dr Charles Dzamalala revealed that Lule was electrocuted. This led to the arrest of 12 police officers.

The latest case of police brutality happened a few days ago in Blantyre. The media reported that a 28-year-old-woman – Ivy Mutarara – was physically assaulted by two police officers stationed at Chirimba Police Unit, after one of them attempted to rape her in her own house. 

The two police officers are said to have forced their way into the Mutarara house to arrest the husband. Apparently, they had issues with him.

“After they handcuffed my husband and pulled him outside the house, one of the officers followed me in the bedroom. He grabbed my clothes and started undressing me while saying ‘mpulumutse mwamuna wako’ [save your husband]. I wrestled and managed to overpower him. I pushed him to the floor and that angered him so he started punching me ruthlessly,” Ivy told The Nation of Tuesday, 20 October 2020.

Some civil society organisations have taken up the matter with the Inspector General of Police. They want his office to urgently probe and prosecute the two officers for attempted rape and grievous harm.

Police-public relations should improve

Going by past events this could be another case of police brutality that may drag on and on without anything happening to the two suspects.

But if what the newly confirmed Inspector General of Police George Kainja told The Nation of 30 September 2020 is anything to go by, the Malawi Police Service could be on the road to change – much needed change to reform.

In the article ‘We’re reforming to regain public trust – IG’, the police chief acknowledges and regrets that some of his officers lost the trust of the public because they indulged in activities contrary to their professional conduct.

But he promises that under his leadership, every officer will be required to strictly adhere to the rule of law, professionalism and deal with people humanely.

“There were issues of corruption that people talked about. There were issues of brutal policing that people were talking about such as the Msundwe case and other cases. …We are determined to rebuild our image. We want to be seen as the people’s police. We would want to be seen to be working with all law-abiding members of the public out there,” Kainja told The Nation.

It is the message that Malawians have waited for far too long. They also want justice to take its course especially on errant officers who are denting the image of the police service. Afterall it’s just a few bad eggs that are giving the service a bad name, a band image.