Legal experts attending a public debate on the relevance of Vagrancy Laws in Malawi have called on the Law Commission to review the law as it targets the poor.
The debate, which took place at Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe on Friday, pooled together high court judges, lawyers, the police and activists to discuss the Vagrancy Law, otherwise known as vakabu.
Sections 180 to 184 of the Penal Code give Police powers to arrest anyone deemed to he idle and disorderly in a public place.
However, the discretion of determine whether someone is idle and disorderly is left to the police officer.
The police have been known to use the Vagrancy Law to raid drinking places at night where they arrest revellers and commercial sex workers who are in turn abused in cells by cops, according to various published reports.
High Court judge Charles Mkandawire noted that the law is archaic which were suitable in the one-party state.
“But times have changed and there is need to change them to reflect the times we are living in. If the Law Commission is working on reviewing some laws, this law ought to be a priority for them,” he said.
Mkandawire, who is the former registrar of the SADC Tribunal, however cautioned on what should be changed.
“We need to review what is good and what is bad about the law and not just say the law is bad i it’s entirety,” he said.
On her part, human rights lawyer Chikondi Ngwira said the law is broad and vague.
“This vagueness gives the police the advantage to abuse people’s rights. For instance, when conducting sweeping exercises, you don’t just arrest everyone. Even when you are sweeping a house, you only sweep the dirt and not everything in the house,” she said.
Other panelists during the debate included Mzuzu High Court Judge-in-Charge Dingiswayo Madise, chairman of the Prison Inspectorate Justice Kenan Manda, Lilongwe Chief Resident Magistrate Ruth Chinangwa, Commissioner of Police (South) Dr George Kainja and head of Prosecution at the Police Headquarters Happy Mkandawire.
According to Manda and Chinangwa, convicting people on rogue and vagabond charges only add to the congestion in the prisons.
On his part, Madise says the law is problematic as it does not define who an idle or disorderly person is.
However, Kainja, while assuring the public that they are guarded by a professional police, said the Police’s hands are tied as long as the law remains in its present form.
“As long as the law remains unchanged, we will continue arresting rogues and vagabonds. Our duty is to enforce the law,” he said.
The Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), who organised the debate, is running a ‘Decriminalisation of Vagrancy Offences’ project with funding from the Open Society.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :