ZAMBIANS must be hanging their heads in shame today to learn that 4,000 fellow citizens are rotting in jail for offences they may not have committed. And yet we call ourselves ‘‘Christian’’.
The shocking revelation by Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA) that more than 4,000 Zambians are languishing in prison, some of them for up to 10 years, awaiting trial, cannot be allowed to continue. Not even a police state would be comfortable with that atrocity.
Just imagine taking 10 years out of a man’s life under the pretext that he may have committed a crime only to discover that he did not or if tried and convicted he could have been sentenced to serve only one or two years in prison. How does one explain that injustice?
In a country which prides itself on the rule of law and has committed itself to ensure that suspects, once arrested and detained by the police must appear before a court within 48 hours, the revelation by Dr Godfrey Malembeka of PRISCCA is a serious indictment on the Zambian criminal justice system.
Twice this week this newspaper has carried reports of the plight of suspects who have been arrested, detained and then ‘‘lost‘’ in prison.
On Wednesday five suspects remanded in custody for up to 10 years without trial petitioned the Lusaka High Court to order their release from Lusaka Central Prison. The men had applied for habeas corpus to compel the State to free them because their continued detention was not only mental and physical torture but a grave violation of human rights. One of them was arrested in 2006.
The following day a suspect in the UPND cadre Grazier Matapa’s murder last year also applied for habeas corpus to force the State to take him before a court for an explanation of his charge. He was arrested more than three weeks ago while doing his business at the Ministry of Lands, dragged to Woodlands police station, slapped with a charge and then ‘’forgotten’’.
These two cases, which are but the tip of the iceberg as disclosed by PRISCCA, speak volumes about the failures in our custodial and correctional services. These are matters deserving urgent attention from the highest offices in the Zambian criminal justice system.
How possible that files and dockets of 4,000 suspects can go missing and no one seems to care about it? How possible that 4,000 people can be fed and looked after in prison indefinitely and nobody worries about it? Where are the prison officials, the prosecutors, court staff? Surely nobody could notice this serious anomaly?
What else is amiss in our justice system? We shudder to think.
The 4,000 ‘‘missing persons’’ are part of the 20,000 prison population that has grown to a point where our correctional facilities are bursting at the seams. It is therefore unacceptable that so many of our able-bodied citizens and family men can be condemned to prison life despite not having been convicted for the alleged offences. They are victims of a system that does not care.
We call upon the offices of the Chief Justice, the Director General of the Zambia Prisons Service and Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the Police Inspector General to urgently call for a multi-sectoral meeting to address this issue.
Zambians can never claim to be free if they can watch and accept 4,000 of their fellow citizens being brutalised by the system.