By Synd Kalimbuka
Eight people in Phalombe have been acquitted on charges of damaging a road, the ruling coming after the eight had been on bail for 14 months during which they were spending K10,000 each to appear twice a week before police.
The eight accused persons were arrested on 15 January, 2020 and charged with malicious damage contrary to section 344 of criminal act on suspicion that they dug Zomba-Phalombe road.
According to Chiringa First Grade Magistrate court, the suspects were arrested by police from Phalombe when the law enforcers were tipped that villagers had dug the road at Chakhuta trading centre in Phulanya village Traditional Authority Ndanga in Mulanje.
The intention to dig the road was to make the way for water, which had flooded the whole village, to go after authorities failed to address the concerns of the community.
During construction of the road several years ago, engineers failed to fit big water passage on the affected site.
The suspects stayed in police cell for 9 days before they were charged. They were released on bail on 24 January, 2020 by the court with conditions that each should pay K30, 000 and be appearing at Phalombe police station twice a week.
Each one of them except first accused person pleaded not guilty against the charge and were spending almost K10, 000 per week for transport to honour the court bail.
They honoured this bail condition for almost 14 months as the justice on the matter were delaying.
On March 4, 2021, the court ruled based on evidence brought before court by both state and defendants who were represented by Legal Aid Bureau.
First Grade Magistrate Enock Malula said the prosecution side did not bring evidence to show that the 8 accused persons dug the road.
He said the court visited the site and found that the lane was dug but vehicles were able to pass without any problem.
Malula added that the contractor for the road in collaboration with Roads Authority did not consider to put big culvert on the area where community had been complaining for so long.
He further said that the accused persons dug the road not on evil minds but to pave way for flooded water due to persistent annual flood forces.
First Grade Magistrate Enock Malula acquitted the 8 accused persons because they were not found guilty on the charge.
However, magistrate found the first accused person Dalitso Mitumba guilty of malicious damage which attracts maximum sentence of 5 years.
In mitigation, a Lawyer from Legal Aid Bureau Laureen Mputeni asked the court to give the convict a suspended sentence because of the nature of the offence and that Road Authorities have not been considering the concerns of communities that they are affected every year.
She also said the court should consider that he admitted to have committed the offence. When passing judgement on Thursday, First Grade Magistrate Enock Malula concurred with counsel Mputeni and gave the convict 10 months suspended sentence and advised him not to commit any crime for 12 months.
Festino Phulanya, one of the acquitted people, praised God for setting them free though he noted that it has taken very long for justice on the matter to prevail. Phulanya said the bail conditions which the court gave were very tough.
“We have been honouring bail conditions as we have been reporting to Phalombe police station twice a week for 14 months,” said Phulanya.
He added that appearing before police station cost them a lot as each person was spending K10, 000 per week. He further said that this tough bail condition has contributed a lot to their Households’ vulnerability because they had no time to work as some are fishermen.
“We were always thinking of honouring court bail which we were appearing every Tuesday and Friday without time to work effectively,” he added.
He then pleaded with road authorities to consider maintaining the road by fixing big culverts to prevent water from flooding to the houses.
One of the Law experts in the country Edge Kanyongolo said it is difficult to analyse the case since he has not seen the whole judgement.
However, on tough bail condition, he said the accused had all the opportunity to ask the court to consider them the same time the bail condition was given.
He also advised them to seek legal assistance from Legal Aid Bureau on how they can proceed with such concerns for them to be compensated.
The judgement which has delayed for 7 months was supposed to be delivered in August 2020.