5000 criminal suspects to walk free

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  • as judiciary removes cases from the roll
  • move blamed on ineptitude of police and DPP’s office

Mohalenyane Phakela 

THOUSANDS of criminal suspects could go scot-free amid revelations by two senior magistrates that up to 5000 criminal cases will be struck off the roll of the magistrates’ courts without going to trial. This because of what chief magistrate ‘Matankiso Nthunya and ‘Makampong Mokhoro describe as the ineptitude of the police and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

In Maseru alone, there are 2413 criminal cases that have been idle in the magistrates’ courts for several years due to the failure by the police to complete investigations to enable prosecution of the suspects. As a result, thousands of suspects have been languishing in remand prison, some for close to a decade, waiting for the police to complete their investigations so that the cases can be brought to trial.

Ms Nthunya, the Central Region Chief Magistrate, this week said it was on the basis of the police’s failure to complete investigations that the country’s fifty-plus magistrates had resolved to remove the cases off the roll and only try suspects in cases where thorough investigations had been completed. Ms Nthunya said the magistrates’ resolution had been endorsed by Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase in her capacity as head of the judiciary.

Ms Nthunya blamed the ineptitude of the police and the DPP’s office for burdening the magistrates’ courts with incomplete cases that could not be successfully prosecuted. Because of that ineptitude, the lower courts had accumulated a massive backlog of cases and oftentimes magistrates had no choice but to eventually free the suspects as they could not indefinitely place them on remand.

“When a suspect is accused of killing a person, he can either be charged for murder which is tried in the High Court or culpable homicide which comes to magistrate courts. It is the discretion of the DPP to decide whether it is murder or culpable homicide,” Magistrate Nthunya said at a press conference in Maseru this week.

“We have a speedy court trial system where a suspect should be remanded in custody for six months while awaiting trial but it practically takes years for the DPP to issue a directive as to whether a case is supposed to be tried as murder or culpable homicide. In other instances, the police can bring a case to court and then say investigations are still ongoing. This leads to a situation where the case is stuck from the roll while we keep remanding the suspect (s) while the investigations continue and are not completed for many years.

“We recently visited the Maseru Correctional Services with Justice Mahase and discovered that there are suspects who have been languishing in prison for eight years still awaiting trial. In Maseru only, there are 2413 idle cases while countrywide the figure is around 5000. We sat down and resolved to remove such cases from the roll.”

Ms Nthunya said the judiciary also resolved that they will no longer enrol incomplete cases because most are often brought by police officers with the aim of only “flexing their muscles” to punish civilians.

“We are often seized with incomplete matters. We have therefore resolved that we will no longer accept cases pending investigations,” she said.

On her part, Northern Region Chief Magistrate, ‘Makampong Mokhoro, said only in exceptional circumstances would they allow incomplete cases to be brought before them.

“There is no need to bring an incomplete murder case before the court unless there are special circumstances warranting such. We have justice sector meetings with the police and prosecution on a monthly basis but still we keep encountering the same problem of idle cases due to other parties’ failure to effectively communicate with us. There have been times when the DPP would have decided that a particular case be treated as a murder case and we would be busy remanding the case to another date thinking the suspect has absconded not knowing the case is now proceeding in the High Court.

“We are not killing the cases but removing them from the roll and they will come back when they are ready to be heard. Our duty is not to investigate cases but hear them,” Ms Mokhoro said.

The revelations by the magistrates show that the case backlog is actually higher than previously thought. Estimates have previously put the figure at between 3000 and 4000 cases. The failure to effectively deal with the huge backlog of cases is one of the main reasons Prime Minister Thomas Thabane advanced for recommending the impeachment of the now suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara in 2018.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Advocate Hlalefang Motinyane, was not available for comment as her mobile phone rang unanswered yesterday.

On his part, Police Spokesperson, Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, said that he was not in a position to comment as the police were yet “to familiarise themselves with the magistrates’ allegations and determine whether they require a response”.

 

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