Sunday, December 14, 2014


For the past few weeks judiciary civil servants across Malawi have been on strike. Their strike is in response to an approved 300% salary increase for parliamentarians, who rely on civil servants to fulfill their mandate to the electorate, but to whom the increase was conveniently not extended. This strike has crippled the court system, raised the prison population to critical levels, and left hundreds of families in limbo. Because the default of the police seems to be throwing people in jail first and asking questions later, it’s kind of a tough time to run amok of the law.

As far as I can tell the criminal justice system in Malawi works like this: When faced with an alleged crime, the police use jail as a holding pen while they investigate. Because it’s so easy to melt back into the populace (no street signs, variable contact information, fluid borders, etc), I can kind of understand wanting to hold suspects - if it wasn’t such a gross breach of due process. Bail, if allowed, is variable. If it is found that there is evidence, then there is a hearing in front of a magistrate, who decides if there is enough evidence to go to actual trial. In an efficient system, this might work itself out in a few hours; in Malawi, depending on how motivated and resource constrained the police are, it can take much longer.

Over dinner a few weeks ago, our host told us of his friend who had just been robbed. The suspects were apprehended, but claimed that the accuser was one of their gang trying to frame them.  Just to be on the safe side, the police threw the accuser in too, leaving to the courts to decide whether or not there was any validity to the charges. The police refused to set bail. Our host was going to go down the next day to see what he could do.

Now, I understand that it is hard and perhaps unfair to judge an entire judicial system based on just this anecdote. I also think it’s terribly cliché to write about corruption in developing country. We Westerners often treated it as a fait accompli, simultaneously revealing our jaded experiences and our condescension. As the #blacklivesmatter protests rock the States, we’d do well to scrutinize our own systems before casting aspersions on others.

However, I do know I’ve been stopped by the cops more than once and asked for a bribe (Madam, I am so thirsty…). I do know that the prisons here are overcrowded, and that vigilante mobs exist to fill the role of an inefficient and ineffective police unit (a robber was beat to death by one just outside our office). It’s frustrating and scary and hopeless all at the same time. And when I asked my friend how he was going to get the robbery victim out of jail, he just looked at me like I was an idiot. 

“More bail,” he deadpanned. 

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