1 March 2014

Zimbabwe: Trial Delays Worsen Prison Overcrowding

NEARLY 30 percent of the country's prison population are pre-trial detainees an independent lawyers group has revealed as arbitrary and excessive detention of suspects worsens overcrowding in the country's penal system.

President Robert Mugabe recently pardoned 2,000 prisoners in a bid to ease overcrowding in prisons as the cash-strapped government struggles to feed inmates.

But in a 54 paged report which analysed the criminal justice and conditions of pre-trial detention in the country and launched Friday in the Harare, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Law Society of Zimbabwe found out that 30 percent of the country's prison population were pre-trial detainees.

"This excessive detention undoubtedly violates inmates' rights to freedom, dignity and a fair and speedy trial as enshrined in the constitution as well in other national, regional and international statues," reads part of the report.

The report came out at the same time Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku hit out at the National Prosecuting Authority for charging suspects and failing to prosecute them in time.

"It is my view that the framers of the Constitution when they included trial within a reasonable time as a right, they sought to curb the problem of people being arrested, charged and nothing happens afterwards," Chidyausiku last Tuesday.

"I think it will be wrong for the prosecution to charge people, sit back and do nothing and then decide to prosecute them in their own time. The attitude that the State has shown ... is totally unacceptable."

Meanwhile, in their report, the lawyers group said prison conditions remained despicable and inhumane and amounted to violations of the detainees' rights, according to the report while shortages of basic services, nutritious food and adequate clothing remained rampant.

Launching the report in Harare on Friday parliamentary portfolio committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs is chairperson and Harare West Member of Parliament Jessie Majome said it was unacceptable that the country should have such "a high number of people in custody waiting for trial."

"Conditions to both holding cells and remand prisons were found to be appalling and inhumane, a situation that is exacerbated by the presence of vulnerable groups such as women and young children as well as juveniles that are incarcerated," Majome said.

She added that there was no budgetary provision "whatsoever for the incarceration of children with their mothers."

"There were instances where prisoners were being abused by working on private farms of senior officials outside their official obligatory labour hours," reads part of the report.

The study found that prison officers, like the majority of the country's civil servants, were earning poor salaries, making it difficult for them to carry out their studies efficiently.

"It was reported that when donations were made by organisations intended to benefit inmates, prison officers would often take some of the goods home-a phenomenon commonly known as the appropriation of zviwanikwa (donated gifts)," reads the report.

The plight of women detainees was also a major concern.

"The susceptibility of women offenders to sexual abuse even at the hands of law enforcement officers underscores the need to give special attention to the current conditions for women in detention centres," says the report.

It added: "Tied to this is the issue of children who are incarcerated with their mothers. These innocent children unfortunately also serve sentences and the conditions are not conducive for early childhood development."

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