Chichiri Performing Arts Group

Last week the newest Malawi Bail Project activities started to take shape – over five days the dusty courtyard at the back of the Chreaa offices became full with song, stomping and stories. The group of 12 ex-prisoners who used to be in the Chichiri Performing Arts group met to develop a play about bail in Malawi. Each day would begin with songs and games we learnt while working together in prison, the same rituals but now outside with no prison uniforms or jangling keys to signify the 3pm lock up time.

Over the week we familiarised ourselves with the procedures and challenges of applying for bail in Malawi, and Chreaa’s Victor Mhango took time out to share with us the recorded information they provide in police stations and to answer questions. One of the best days was spent at Chichiri Prison with the members of the current Performing Arts group. There are 25 members and together with the outside group and facilitators this made for a massive circle of people when opening and closing the workshop, and an epic game of Chipako cha Njoca (Snake Tag)! This workshop was about sharing stories about bail. People paired off and quietly discussed with each other their experiences – everyone had a story. Many had applied for bail and been unsuccessful, not knowing when to ask or what to say in court, some had been granted but whose family couldn’t afford it, others hadn’t known about bail at all until it was too late.

These stories formed the basis of our play which follows the stories of four men arrested after stealing a car. The play sees each one of them face challenges relating to bail including corruption in the police system and lack of knowledge as well as showing the impact this has on families left behind. The direct experience each group has had of arrest, trial and imprisonment means the play is deeply personal to everyone – particularly the end scene where all four men spend their first night in Chichiri Prison and realise the conditions they will be living in for their sentences.

We took the play back to Chichiri to show the other group, who watched and cheered as their friends performed, loudly answering the questions of the facilitators (also ex-prisoners) who interject throughout the play to talk about what is going on, ask the audience questions and get them onstage to try out solutions. This Friday we will be performing the play at Chichiri Prison – approximately 1900 inmates – a lot of whom may know something about bail but many who won’t and may even be in Chichiri through lack of knowledge. Statistically this group is very at risk of re-offending, so these are some of the key people for this project to target. For the group performing, it will be exciting and emotional to perform as free men within the walls they served years of hard labour. We will be there to record this moment and posting updates as we do!


Photos courtesy of Arjen van der Merwe

Chichiri Drama Group – Crowdfunder

This week in an outbuilding of Chichiri Prison, a very special meeting happened.  The Chichiri Drama group, a 25 strong team of actors, dancers and musician inmates gathered where they usually rehearse in the shadow of the walls surrounding the prison.  They sat and waited for thirty minutes or so, as one by one other men joined us – some …

Police Training 2016

Elton, one of our paralegals, blogs about our most recent police training session… Our training targeted Police officers with an aim of reminding them of the rights of suspects as stipulated in the Constitution (Section 42 (2) (e)), Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code and in the Bail Guideline Act 2000. Every accused or suspect has a right to be released with …

Fair Trials International guest post: arbitrary arrests and detention in Malawi

On 20th of May this year, Malawi held its first tripartite elections. The leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Peter Mutharika, younger brother to the late President Bingu Mutharika, won the election by 34.6% of the vote. In anticipation of public unrest prior to and post elections, there has been an increase in the use of routine ‘sweeping’ exercises, carried out by the Malawi Police Service and Malawi Defence Force soldiers.

‘Sweeping’ exercises, deemed by the government to be an essential practice in the reduction of increasing crime rates in Malawi, are clean up exercises which literally sweep the streets of suspected criminals. Large numbers of police and heavily armed Defence Force soldiers in army vehicles attend market places, townships and other heavily populated community areas and arrest people without investigation. Those arrested are then loaded into pickup trucks and transported to police station holding cells or directly to prison.

These are not small scale exercises. Mable Msefula, National Police Deputy Spokesperson, recently confirmed that 2,156 suspects were arrested during sweeping exercises across all regions in Malawi, between 12 – 13 September 2014. However, as noted in a recent report by the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), in collaboration with the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), “no research has been conducted to establish whether such exercises lead to a significant reduction in crime.”

The majority of those arrested during these routine exercises are charged under Section 180 and 184 of the Malawi Penal Code. Section 180(b)&(e) considers those begging or soliciting “for immoral purposes” in a public place to be “idle and disorderly” persons. The scope of Section 184(b) is even broader and permits the police to charge “Every suspected person or reputed thief who has no visible means of subsistence and cannot give a good account of himself is deemed a rogue and vagabond.”

Many human rights organisations in Malawi, including CHREAA and SALC, are advocating for urgent revision of the idle and disorderly persons and rogue and vagabond provisions, on the basis that the provisions are outdated and unfairly target the poor and most vulnerable groups in Malawi. Further, an arrest without investigation breaches both the constitutional rights of Malawians and international law, in particular Article 9 of the ICCPR, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.”   

President Mutharika recently announced that the government would be taking a ‘tough on crime’ approach throughout his term in office.  As a result, it looks likely that routine ‘sweeping’ exercises will become more frequent and continue to place undue strain on Malawi’s under resourced criminal justice system.  Prisons in Malawi are already at double capacity, so these large-scale arrests are likely to result in severe overcrowding and an increase in numbers of pre-trial detainees across the country.

Justice delayed is Justice denied

The Strike Since my arrival in Malawi almost three months ago, all 200 courts, from the Supreme Court to the Magistrate’s Courts, have remained closed.  After negotiations in 2005, Parliament promised the court staff a salary increase of 50%, to come into effect in 2006.  However, as six years have passed without any sign of the approved pay rise, the …