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revision of the idle and disorderly persons and rogue and vagabond provisions, on the basis that the provisions are outdated and unfairly target the poor and most vulnerable groups in Malawi.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.