In the last year or so, Malawi’s justice system has had more than its fair share of VIPs coming through its doors. In October 2012, several high-level officials linked to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were arrested in connection with the death of student activist Robert Chasowa, who was murdered in 2011 when the DPP was in office. And in light of the recent government corruption scandal – dubbed Cashgate in reference to the wads of cash found in suspects’ homes and cars – more high-ranking figures, including former justice minister Ralph Kasambara, have been taken into custody.
For once, these individuals are seeing their country’s justice system from the inside. But in Malawi, justice, like so many other things, seems to be a privilege rather than a universal right. And the experience of Malawi’s VIPs is likely to be a universe away from that of the 12,000 ordinary citizens detained in prisons across the country.
A tale of two justice systems
Robert Chasowa, a student activist and critic of the late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika, died in September 2011. Against much outcry and suspicion, his death was originally classified as a suicide. After Mutharika passed away and Joyce Banda took over the presidency in April 2012, however, she reopened the case. A few months later, in October 2012, several figures – many members of the DPP – were arrested in connection with Chasowa’s death, now being treated as the result of murder, and transferred to Chichiri prison in Blantyre, the largest in the Southern region.