Malawi police will be investigated for suspect's torture death

The Malawi Human Rights Commission this week released a report finding police responsible for the death, by torture, of a man unlawfully arrested on suspicion of being involved in the abduction and killing of a child with albinism. This is just the latest development in the horror of Malawi's increasingly endangered albino people, murdered for their body parts to satisfy occult beliefs, and it follows just days after a high court judge passed the death sentence on the convicted killer of a man with albinism (see separate story below).  

Read report by the Malawi Human Rights Commission

Goodson Fanizo, 14, a Malawian child with albinism, was abducted on 13 February 2019. Although six suspects were picked up by police, neither the child nor his body has yet been found. However, one of the last of the suspects to be arrested, Buleya Lule, 44, died just days after he was taken into custody by police.

Malawi’s Human Rights Commission (MHRC), which is fighting a tough battle to hold the line against infringements of basic rights as enshrined in Malawi’s constitution, immediately began an official investigation into the man’s death while in police custody.

Arrested in good health early in the morning of Monday, 18 February 2019, Lule was declared dead when he was taken to hospital on Wednesday 20 February 2019. He had been in police custody for the whole period.

Police arranged an autopsy that, according to the media, blamed his death on intracranial bleeding and hypertension. Concerned about the suggestion that his death resulted from natural causes the MHRC, financially supported by the UN Development Programme, asked specialist forensic pathologist Dr Charles Dzamalala to carry out a second post mortem.

His detailed report found Lule had died following torture, with no evidence of hypertension or any other natural cause of death.

Dzamalala noted “many injuries of different types and nature” on Lule’s body, “ranging from bruises to scratches to burn wounds to electric wounds”, and concluded that the main cause of death was electrocution.

The three most significant injuries were an electric burn found on his abdomen, bruises on his head caused by a cylindrical object among others, and a direct burn wound (rather than scalding) that covered almost the whole of his left buttock, with the skin already peeling off in some parts. It was “abundantly clear” that he was assaulted with “different types of implements”, said the report.

Dzamalala said of these injuries that the World Medical Association would describe them as being “consistent with torture”.

Since hearing of Lule’s death in custody, the MHRC has been investigating what happened, and its report was released late this week.

The report reconstructs, as far as it is able, details of Lule’s last few days.

Among its conclusions is that there was “some doubt” that Lule had in fact masterminded the abduction and presumed killing of Fanizo, as suggested by some of the others arrested before him. However, other possible suspects had not yet been found and the MHRC thus notes that the investigations into what happened to Fanizo were far from complete.

The MHRC report detailed the many human rights violations experienced by Lule - his arrest without warrant, being held incommunicado and ultimately his death by torture - as well as the breach of his family's rights, all at the hands of the police, and recommended urgent criminal investigations of the police officers involved from the time of Lule’s original arrest, throughout the period he was held in custody, up to the time of his death by torture at the hands of the police.

Among those named, who will now have to give an account of themselves, is the acting commissioner for the central region police headquarters, Evalista Chisale, reported by local media to be the wife or former wife of Norman Chisale, commander of the presidential guard and a man who has more than usual influence on the police, as well as significant political connections.

The MHRC said the Inspector General of Police should also begin an urgent criminal investigation to establish who among the police assaulted, abused and humiliated Lule’s family members at a police station when they went to make inquiries about him, and added that the police should prioritise the finalizing of investigations into Fanizo’s disappearance so that justice could be done.

Attention was also to be given to “mainstreaming” human rights standards in police work, and the commission informed the police that during August it would follow up on progress made on all these issues.

The MHRC said Lule’s wife should bring a compensation claim against the state for her husband’s death, while the director of the Kamuzu Central Hospital was told to put procedures in place to regularize post-mortems carried out there after questionable processes were discovered during the commission’s investigation.

Another key recommendation was that the Independent Complaints Commission, envisaged by the Police Act, should be set up as soon as possible, and the MHRC said it would take up this issue again in the next financial year.

Neither the report, released to great media interest on Thursday, nor the second autopsy findings, will come as a shock to the people of Malawi or anyone else keeping a close watch on that country. Reports of police brutality and corruption are rife. In its 2018 world human rights report, the US state department noted human rights failures in Malawi included “extrajudicial killings; torture; arbitrary detention” all of which abuses were “committed by official security forces”. It also referred to media reports in Malawi that between January and August 2018, 43 suspects died while in police custody. Other reports, on police conduct during 2017, put the number of people whose deaths were attributable to police, at more than 70.

According to the official US report, while torture was prohibited under the constitution, police sometimes used “excessive force and other unlawful practices, including torture, to extract confessions from suspects”, and that police impunity was a problem.

The freedom given police to use brutality and torture is already well documented, but it goes along with another, growing, concern – what role might the police be playing in relation to the continuing, horrific abduction and murder of people with albinism people in Malawi? Are they conducting honest investigations, or are they hindering them – or might the police even be part of a cover up to protect the wealthy and well-connected, believed by many ordinary Malawians to be a key part of this ongoing scourge?