A win for children’s rights in Malawi; acquittal for former Congolese vice-president

Malawi court orders children held in adult prisons be transferred.

On 5 June 2018, a court in Malawi ordered that children held in adult prisons be transferred to safety homes or reformatory centres within 30 days. Any children previously tried by magistrates not designated to handle child justice matters would be retried within 30 days by appropriately designated magistrates and any orders made by magistrates not specifically designated to try children would be declared null and set aside.

Though the law in Malawi already prohibits the detention of children in adult prisons and safety homes and reformatory centres exist to hold children,  a number of children were still being held at two of the countries adult prisons, Bvumbwe and Kachere. A 2016 inspection found these two prisons facing a number of challenges including the risk of collapsing, a lack of ventilation and food shortages. Similarly, laws were already in place allowing for children in conflict with the law to be tried only by magistrates specifically designated to hear child matters. However, these provisions were not complied with in some cases.

The court therefore reiterated that under the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act 2010, the best interests of the child was paramount. Thus, children awaiting trial or those against whom no finding had been made could not be detained in an adult prison. Even where a finding of responsibility had been made against a child, the law did not allow for a child to be held in an adult prison. The decision is a major victory for advocates of children’s rights and the rule of law in general. More information on the background and implications of this judgment can be found here and here.

Former Congolese vice-president acquitted by International Criminal Court

Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Democratic Republic of Congo vice-president, was on 8 June 2018, acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. In 2016, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Trial Chamber.

However, the ICC’s Appeal Chamber found that Mr Bemba had been “erroneously convicted … for specific criminal acts that were outside the scope of the case and that the proceedings in relation to these acts must be discontinued.” The Appeal Chamber also found that the Trial Chamber had “made serious errors in its assessment of whether Mr Bemba took all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent, repress commission of the other crimes by his subordinates, or to submit the matter to the competent authorities.”

The acquittal means Mr Bemba could be released anytime although he is also being separately held for corruptly influencing defence witnesses and soliciting their false testimonies. The decisions also raises as many questions for critics of the ICC as it does for supporters. For those who claim the ICC unfairly targets African, the decision provides a counter-narrative of fairness and transparency. However, for those who applaud the ICC’s focus on Africans accused of war crimes, the decision is a slap in the face for victims. For the victims in this case, there remains little in the way of justice or compensation. A Trust Fund for Victims separately set up for victims of war may provide the only means that any affected individuals could obtain assistance where appropriate.  That however, is not the justice the sought, particularly those who may have risked their lives to give evidence. More information about the acquittal can be found here.

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