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Sunday, 17 January 2010

Better Policing (Illegal Detentions)

An update to the "Rethinking Justice : Better Policing" that highlights the urgency for further reforms. It is shameful that police would detain a wife just to make sure the husband turns up. The other day I was watching a Nollywood film with my wife and I deplored such tactics, only my wife to gently remind me that our country is no better at using such tactics. And right she was as the story report below illustrates  :

Police Breaking the Law to Prevent Crime, Zarina Geloo, ISP, Report :

Juniper Mwale was attending a funeral in another town when her husband jumped bail and fled the country. Despite not being aware of her husband's escape, police tracked her down and detained her illegally in an effort to force her spouse home.

Detaining someone without cause is against the law in Zambia. But the country’s police continue to do this, specifically targeting the female relatives of a suspect, in an attempt to gather information or force the suspect out into the open.

The practise is so common that Zambians have accepted it as an inevitable part of investigations. However, legal aid clinics are now trying to increase public awareness to stop this practice and demanding that the officers involved be charged with breaking the law.

Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA) executive director Matrine Chuulu says the illegal detentions are an abuse of power and a blatant violation of people’s rights. WILSA provides free legal aid to women and is now leading the campaign against illegal detention.

“It’s ironic that the very institutions that are supposed to protect are the ones violating people.” Chuulu says police have taken advantage of the power they have in society. “The police need to know that they are not above the law, they should be penalised like anyone else.”

Mwale says it is obvious that the police who detained her were aware their actions were illegal. She was released from detention soon after a neighbour threatened to go to the media and expose the police for unlawfully holding her.

Former police inspector Anthony Musamba, who is retired after 35 years in the police service, admits that as a junior officer he locked up female relatives of suspects because it was the easiest way of getting ‘a move’ on an investigation.

He says criminals often use the female members of their families to hide their misdeeds. For example a man usually hides stolen goods at his girlfriend’s or mother’s house, or will send a female relative to run errands for him. Musamba says the belief among criminals is that women are less likely to be suspected of criminal activity and are deemed loyal and trustworthy.

“When you are investigating a crime, your best bet when it comes to getting information is to apprehend the strongest link to a suspect, usually a wife, mother or daughter. They are also the ones that organise things like bail; they are also a (source) of much information. That is why they are picked up.”

A decade ago the Zambian police was known for using force and illegal methods in their investigations - including such practices as illegally holding relatives of suspects. But this started to change around the early 1990s. It was around this time that people became more aware of their rights. Civil society also became more aggressive in forcing institutions, especially the police, to practise good governance, explained Musamba. He is currently a fourth-year law student.

“That’s when we even changed from calling ourselves the Police Force, to the Police Service. We acknowledged human rights and service (as) part of our obligations.”

But police spokesperson Bonnie Kapeso is convinced that the arbitrary arrests of relatives of suspects are a thing of the past. He says officers are now more sensitised and mindful of people’s rights. He claims not to have received a complaint about police illegally detaining relatives in “a long time”.

“At every police station, the officer in charge holds weekly lectures and some of the (topics are) on human rights and the proper conduct during investigations. Police are told not to hold individuals who are not suspects.”

But this is not the reality, say police officers in the field.

Speaking anonymously, officers manning a police station in a crime-ridden township just outside the Lusaka Business District are unrepentant.

They say when investigating a crime, they will pick up ‘whoever they find at (the suspect’s) home’. The officers said they are happier if they find the wife of a suspect at home because they believe that her illegal detention will give them a break in the investigation.

It is because the woman is usually the one who holds the family together in the absence of her husband, the police officers explain. “There is more pressure to have her return home quickly so that she can continue to look after the family,” one officer says.

The officers interviewed by IPS insist that this is par for the course in all police stations. “We do what we have to do in order to get the job done,” one officer explains, adding that they do not detain just anyone illegally.

“It’s only when we have reason to believe they have information we need,” the officer says. “Most of our successes in apprehending criminals are achieved through detaining close relatives of suspects, especially female relatives. But human rights activists jump on our backs as though we are deliberately violating people’s rights, they do not consider the rights of innocent people being harmed by crime.”

Kapeso says if police still arrest or detain people for no reason other than that they are close to the suspect, then it is up to the victims to institute legal action against police. “The police are not allowed to do this, so if there are any officers still making false arrests, they should be prosecuted.”

Chuulu says this is easier said than done. More often than not relatives are afraid of suing the police because it might jeopardise the case of the suspects. “They feel that the police might use it to punish the suspect or just make the case difficult. It is very difficult because the police are in
such a powerful position.”

She gives the example of the case of the case of Mohan Mathews, a high profile businessman in jail for suspected murder. His mother was illegally detained for two days when he jumped bail. She was released when WILSA threatened court action. Mathews was eventually caught, almost a month later.

“The two days that Mathews’ mother was held while police were looking for her son or using her arrest to force her son to give himself up amounts to false imprisonment for which she can be compensated in a civil matter. But she has refused to pursue the matter for fear that it would call more attention to her son’s case,” Chuulu says.

Mwale agrees that suing the police is difficult. When she tried, she found that the police protected their own officers. Like many in her situation, the record of her ‘arrest’ was not documented in the police daily occurrences book where all incidences are reported.

“It was my word against theirs and they banded together to make me look like a liar. As I did not have a leg to stand on, I abandoned the action.”

Aaron Chumba, a paralegal with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), experiences the same frustration. The LRF, a non profit organisation providing free legal aid, receives about twenty to thirty complaints a month from people about rights violations. About half of these are of false imprisonment by police.

While the LRF has had some success with suits against police officers, the compensation is little, discouraging victims. In those cases the police officer was also allowed to continue working and in some cases repeated the same violations.

But there is hope, Chumbu says. The Zambian government plans to recover compensation awarded to victims of police officers found abusing the law by the courts, from the police officers concerned.

“This might act as a deterrent, as policemen are already underpaid, so cuts to their salaries would be unwelcome. But the most important thing is to change the mindset of police so that they are able to behave better, and to educate the public on their rights,” Chumba says.

In the meantime, Chuulu says WILSA will continue to seek justice against police officers abusing the law.

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