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– by Raphael Mweninguwe
Recent media reports indicate that within a few months, more than 43 robbery suspects have been killed by the police while in custody in Malawi. According to the Nation newspaper, both relatives of the dead and police have confirmed that suspects were shot dead. Some police sources claim that policemen killed in order to defend themselves against armed offenders.
The district police of Ntcheu in the Central Region of the country admitted that under their custody four suspects died between May and June 2018 and that relatives collected the dead bodies. According to Hastings Chigalu, the districts police’s public relations officer, two more suspects died in custody; their bodies could not be identified and were buried by fellow prisoners.
In Malawi’s commercial capital Blantyre in the Southern Region police are said to have shot dead four people in June 2018. The police justified the killings saying they are operating under “difficult circumstances”.
There are no reliable figures about deaths in police custody, so their number is unknown. The US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor writes in its Malawi 2017 Human Rights Report that there are major human-rights issues in Malawi resulting from “excessive use of force by security officers, including torture” as well as “harsh and life-threatening prison and detention-centre conditions“. According to the report, moreover, there were “isolated reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings“, and investigations against perpetrators of these killings were “often delayed, abandoned or remained inconclusive“.
“Most of these dead suspects are criminals,” said one police officers who asked not to be named. He insisted that such killings are allowed when police officers are in danger, concluding that the extra-judicial execution of suspects sends a “clear message” to robbers who are “terrorising” the cities. “When police officers carry out such operations, they are doing so to protect civilian lives and property,” he claimed.
Human-rights groups condemn all unlawful killings and fight for the rights of the suspects. However, not all Malawians agree with this stance. Some people condone the killings. Jeffrey Phiri, who lives in the capital Lilongwe, says he feels no pity for “robbers who are caught by the police and shot dead”.
Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.