“Law alumna’s charity seeks justice in Malawi”

Our Founder was featured in the Exeter University Law Alumni newsletter recently. You can read more below –

“Charlotte Mackenzie (Law, 2010) was called to the Bar in 2011 and is now a tenant at Staple Inn Chambers in London practicing in Family Law and Immigration (Asylum). She is also the Founder and Director of the Malawi Bail Project (MBP), a UK registered charity that funds and delivers access to justice initiatives and activities in Malawi.

Charlotte said: “Whilst in my final year at Exeter, I received an email from my Human Rights lecturer, Caroline Fournet, about a paralegal organisation in Malawi, the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), who were looking for legal interns. The following year I found out about the Inner Temple’s Sir Joseph Priestly Award, which provides internship awards to newly qualified barristers, and I immediately applied proposing a four week placement with CHREAA.

“I was granted the scholarship and left for Malawi in January 2012 intending to stay for four weeks. However after seeing the devastating consequences of a justice system where 90% of prisoners do not have access to legal advice or representation, I decided to stay for a further three months to assist CHREAA with their vital work.”

Prisons throughout Malawi are severely overcrowded. At Chichiri Prison, one of the largest prisons in Malawi, cells built to hold 60 people currently hold over 200 prisoners. Overcrowding means the already limited prison budget cannot provide adequate nutrition, sanitation or health care for inmates, which contributes to the spread of infectious disease and in many cases death.

Charlotte said: “This crisis is, in part, due to the large numbers of people (currently around 6,000) imprisoned on remand and awaiting trial. During my internship with CHREAA I conducted research which found that that 75% of prisoners interviewed were not aware of the right to bail; primarly due to the severe lack of legal aid lawyers in Malawi (around 20 currently practicing).

“Strikingly, a large majority of the prisoners interviewed were either first time offenders, or were alleged to have committed non-violent crimes and would therefore seemingly be, good candidates for bail. Observing that this situation could have been avoided simply by ensuring that the accused person had access to information/advice about their right to bail upon arrest at the police station or at court, I founded the Malawi Bail Project (MBP).

“We have three core objectives: (i) legal empowerment through community education (ii) capacity building of professionals in the criminal justice system (iii) the promotion of rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. We deliver these aims in partnership with CHREAA through a range of activities.”

Some of the activities Charlotte has undertaken include distribution of ‘Understanding Your Right to Bail’ booklets/posters to magistrates’ courts and police stations, providing a toll-free 24/7 Paralegal Advice Line for detainees and family members of those arrested to receive practical advice, and delivering separate training and discussion groups with magistrates and police officers to explore ways of making the justice system more accessible for the poor and unrepresented.

Charlotte said: “We also work with Nkhokwe Arts Group (NAG), a group of ex-prisoners who use theatre to educate communities on socio-economic issues. They have devised a play about the legal process and the right to bail which they perform in community centres in and around Blantyre.

“In addition we coordinate Camp Courts – special Court sessions where judges are brought to the prison to consider bail applications from those charged with minor offences or where the accused is particularly vulnerable. We are hoping to expand our work and are keen to partner with other law firms and organisations to get information out.”


Primary Justice: The Community Paralegals of Malawi

Rupert Bedford visits a legal empowerment project in Malawi that is taking small but important steps to address the chronic lack of criminal justice legal aid provision in the country. ____________________________ A group of suspects has gathered in the small custody room of Blantyre Police Station in Southern Malawi. Huddled on the floor, they listen quietly and attentively to Elton …

Bail Project in Mwanza

Boxten Kuzdiwe (MBP Paralegal) has been working hard to establish an MBP presence in Mwanza, for the past 18 months.  Our founder, Charlotte Mackenzie, went to visit to see first hand the assistance Boxten is providing those detained in police stations & prisons without access to a lawyer, in the Mwanza District. 



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.


Malawi: Justice for the Rich, Prison for the Poor

Malawi: Justice for the Rich, Prison for the Poor Being in prison in Malawi can be a tale of two justice systems. One involves legal representation, bail hearings and careful treatment. The other doesn’t. Article | 27 November 2013 – 11:16am | By Charlotte Mackenzie Inmates at Chikhwawa prison during a visit from the Deputy British Commissioner of Malawi, organised …

Thoughts of a Prisoner – Boxten Kudziwe

Boxten Kudziwe, one of hundreds of prisoners in Malawi currently imprisoned in pre-trial detention, has written the below article about his experiences of the criminal justice system in Malawi.  He talks about the idea of a fair trial, adequate legal representation and rehabilitation and how all of these fairly standard notions of justice are inaccessible for the majority of Malawians …

Rehabilitation and Re-offending

When I arrived in Malawi four months ago I wrote a blog about the incredible work my friend Effie Makepeace has been doing with prisoners in Malawi.  Determined to change the attitude of society towards prisoners  and ex-convicts, Effie worked with prisoners in Chichiri prison to put together a performance which portrayed the horrific reality thousands of prisoners endure every …

Magistrate’s Discussion Group

On 1 November 2012, 20 Magistrates from Blantyre and the surrounding areas attended a training/discussion group organised by CHREAA and myself.  The aim of the session was for us to gain a better understanding of the main reasons Magistrates are denying bail applications and for the Magistrate’s to gain a better understanding of the common difficulties experienced by those going …

Lamulo ndi Umunthu

Students involved in the pilot phase of the mitigation projects have been fully trained in capital mitigation – to undertake interviews with homicide remandees at both Chichiri Prison and Zomba Central Prison in preparation for sentencing hearings, research sentencing precedents in Malawi and draft skeleton arguments on mitigation. In May 2012, the British FCO accepted the CCPS proposal for funding, …

Disease Screening and Control Project

     On Friday I travelled with the paralegals from CHREAA, to Chikwawa prison in Southern Malawi, to commend the hard work of all those involved in the Disease Screening and Control Project. The British FCO funded project, aims to reduce the rate of occurrence of infectious diseases in four prisons in Malawi, through screening prisoners on admission and administering …

The Need for Age Assessment

Last week I was given a list of ten names.   All of these names belonged to homocide remandees at Chichiri prison, whose cases had been heard in 2010, but due to judicial strikes, huge case backlogs and an under resourced legal aid department, were still awaiting judgement.   My first port of call was to the ever helpful Boxten, …

A Big Thank You to Matrix Chambers

We are very glad to announce that the Charities Aid Foundation has just approved a £3,000 donation from Matrix Chambers to The Malawi Bail Project.  This extremely generous donation will pay for CHREAA to run the Bail Education Pilot Project in Blantyre High Court and Magistrate Courts in Blantyre and the surrounding area for the next year.    The funding will also …

Boxten Kudziwe

Boxten Kudziwe was arrested and charged with murder along with two other men in 2006.  One of his co-accused escaped and was not re-arrested, the other plead guilty and was sentenced to whole of life imprisonment in Zomba Maximum Security Prison in 2010.  Boxten, who has always maintained a not guilty plea, has spent the past six years in Chichiri …

Prisoners Perform

On Saturday, we all made our way to Nanzikambe Arts Cafe to watch a performance by current prisoners from Chichiri and Zomba prison.  Effie Makepeace has worked with prisoners in Chichiri for the past three years, running drama workshops which help prisoners to express their emotions and kep active during the days, months and years they spend incarcerated in inhumane …

And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night

On 25 September 1987 Jack Mapanje, a Malawian University lecturer and poet was arrested without charge, under a direct order from Ngwazi Dr H. Kamuzu Banda.  He was detained in Mikuyu prison without trial for 3 years, 7 months,16 days and more than 12 hours.  The Africa Centre, in collaboration with Nanzikambe Arts and Bilimankhwe Arts, are running a production …