CITIZENS STUNNED: LAWYER SECRETLY FILES COMPENSATION CLAIMS WITHOUT CONSENT

BY GREGORY GONDWE

The Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) has uncovered a fraud scheme, where a lawyer from Dawn Patrick’s Attorneys allegedly used names of unsuspecting residents from Phalombe and Mulanje districts in a plot to defraud Family Health Services (FHS), previously known as Population Services International (PSI), out of millions over its Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) project.

This complex web of alleged deceit, ensnaring innocent communities, highlights calculated exploitation and exposes deep vulnerabilities within the legal and healthcare systems.

The twist? Plaintiffs are disavowing the court cases filed in their names, unravelling a scandal that blurs the lines between legal advocacy and criminal conspiracy.

The lawyer, Dalitso Chimbe of Dawn Patrick’s Attorneys, firmly maintains that he was legitimately assigned to file for compensation on behalf of the plaintiffs. However, these same plaintiffs now vehemently demand an explanation, questioning where and how he was appointed to represent them as their lawyer.

Our investigations are around three legal cases filed under civil causes.

On August 29, 2023, Stella Mkhosa, on behalf of a minor, her son, Yusuf Banda, and 21 others, sued Population and Services International (PSI) in a civil case number 1813 before Senior Resident Magistrate Lawrence Chilima sitting at Midima in Limbe, Blantyre.

On October 4, 2023, at the same court, Damson Esimey, on behalf of a minor, Enock Kachala and 311 others, also filed a legal suit demanding compensation.

On October 6, another group of plaintiffs, 25 in total, led by Aida Mvula on behalf of Promise Mauzu, also sued PSI.

PIJ’s investigation reveals a pattern: numerous individuals named plaintiffs in these lawsuits were seemingly included without their knowledge.

Our investigations reveal that agents gathered national Identity Cards in Phalombe and Mulanje under the pretence of securing compensation from PSI for circumcisions performed between 2015 and 2017. Contradictorily, the official Statements of Claim for these cases list the circumcisions occurring between 2021 and 2022.

This revelation has prompted many of those named to seek explanations regarding their unexpected involvement in these legal proceedings and the apparent inconsistencies in the claim dates.

The investigations conducted by the Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ), corroborated by the Phalombe District Health Office, Phalombe Police, and Mbeya Private Investigators, all point to a sophisticated scheme aimed at defrauding Population Services International (PSI) of a substantial sum of money.

Prisca Mawaya, a 32-year-old mother of three from Phalombe, appearing as a plaintiff in the case, is stunned to find her and her 18-year-old son, Gift Bisani, listed as litigants in a lawsuit they knew nothing about. Bisani was circumcised in 2015 at a clinic in Nkula, Blantyre.

Prisca Mawaya want to meet the lawyer.

“I am concerned because my son was never circumcised here but is appearing on the list, and as if that is not a big lie enough, we are being mentioned as having met a lawyer and taken our case to court, which never happened,” Mawaya told PIJ from her village in Phalombe.

Alefa Muha, a 35-year-old mother of twins, was equally shocked. Her son, Frances Simeon, now nine and circumcised at birth at Bottom Hospital in Lilongwe, is allegedly among those ‘abducted’ for circumcision.

Alefa Muha – My Son Was Never Abducted

“When I heard about this story, I was more than shocked. I was duped because they said all those whose children were circumcised would get paid,” she explained, expressing her disbelief and the community’s sense of betrayal.

The story of two sisters, Judith and Harriet Scott, 23 and 28 years old respectively, seems almost surreal. The law firm filed their husbands as minors in their care.

Harriet Scott – My Husband Can’t Be My Ward
Judith Scott- My Husband Was Circumcised This Year. He is not a Minor

“My husband Gift Masangwi is a year older than me, and yes, he was circumcised this year in early August,” said Harriet, frustrated by the false claims.

She said the day her husband travelled to Migowi for a check-up, the unknown people came and started collecting their national identity cards.

Judith’s husband, Dinweck Laudoni, 24, was circumcised in April this year.

“We want to meet the lawyer. We are going to sue him,” she declared.

Enock Masanza, 49, with six children aged 22 and 11, is bewildered to find his sons, Kennedy, 19, and Christopher, 16, included in the claims.

Enock Masanza – Who Would Have Benefitted From The Lawsuits?

“These two sons of mine were never abducted. I consented to their circumcision procedure,” he said.

Masanza surrendered his ID to people promising K150,000 payment for each circumcised child.

“We are surprised to hear that we are suing PSI. Why should we do such a thing when we know what exactly happened?” he wondered.

The villagers’ confusion is compounded by the court documents falsely stating they are from Traditional Authority Mkando, a non-existent entity in Phalombe. He told PIJ they come from Gona Village in Traditional Authority Kaduya in Phalombe.

“We want to meet him again. We will find this lawyer and ask him why he thinks we are from this traditional authority and again on whose instructions he acted upon when he took these matters to court without our consent,” Masanza added.

Milward Tebulo, 76, the Village Headman Gona, dismissed the allegations of abduction. This is where most of those alleged plaintiffs come from.

Village Headman Mgona – The People That Came Were Fraudsters

He said they collaborated with Group Village Headman Matepwe when health officials started spreading messages about circumcision, which convinced parents to send their children for the procedure.

“Now, after so many years, one day, I saw two people come to the village and told my subjects that all the children who were circumcised would get money. They asked for IDs which were photocopied and returned to the villagers,” he explained.

Adding: “Since these people who lied came through Group Village Headman Matepwe, he summoned me, and upon discussing the matter, we concluded that the people that came were fraudsters.”

These testimonies paint a picture of a community deceived and used in a legal battle without their knowledge or consent, leading to widespread confusion and a quest for justice.

Agness Desani, a 39-year-old mother of seven from Kwala Village, Traditional Authority Nyezelera, was entangled in a perplexing legal situation. Her ID card was used to list several circumcised boys as plaintiffs in a lawsuit, including her two sons, Aubrey and Medson Pitala, as well as her nephews, Dziwani Mwitha and Grant Mahele.

PIJ Gregory Interviewing Agness Desani in Phalombe

However, her other nephew, Gift Segula, whose mother lives nearby, and her sons were not included as plaintiffs.

“We were approached by a health worker from Migowi who was looking for boys that had been circumcised,” Agness recounted. “They told us that those who had undergone circumcision were entitled to payment and asked for our IDs.”

She was bewildered at the unfolding events, “We never appointed any lawyer to represent us. We were anticipating payment, not legal action. It was a shock to hear that we had filed a complaint in court.”

Beatrice Sayiwala, Agness’s younger sister, explained her absence on the day the IDs were collected. “I wasn’t around when they collected the IDs. A man came and appointed my sister as the guardian for my son, Gift, without my knowledge.”

PIJ reached out to Dalitso Chimbe of Dawn Patrick’s Attorneys, the lawyer responsible for filing the compensation claims, to understand why these cases were initiated without direct communication with the plaintiffs. Chimbe was also asked to address the concerns about the discrepancies in the Statement of Claim, especially the circumcision dates.

Chimbe confirmed his firm’s involvement in these cases.

“I can confirm that we have instructions from the claimants themselves,” he stated firmly.

For further verification, Chimbe suggested that PIJ visit specific areas in Phalombe District, including Migowi for the case of Damson Esimey and 312 others, and Matephwe, Gogodera, Muhawa, Namboya, Jimu, and Jamali Villages for Aida Mvula v PSI.

“The local chiefs can attest that the clients approached our firm. I have personally met all my clients,” he asserted, challenging the notion of lack of direct communication.

Regarding the alleged inaccuracies in the Statement of Claim, Chimbe doubted that PIJ had thoroughly reviewed the documents. He clarified that the firm represents minors who were circumcised without parental or guardian consent between 2021 and 2022.

“If your information is from individuals circumcised in 2015 and 2017, then you are questioning the wrong people,” he explained.

Chimbe referred PIJ to paragraph number 3 of their Statement of Claims for a clearer understanding, which reads:

“On various dates between the years of 2021 and 2022, the defendant herein was moving around the aforementioned area with its motor vehicle, which had speakers attached to the same, loudly projecting and promoting its campaign for male circumcision. The plaintiffs (minors) were enticed by the motor vehicle and its music and followed the motor vehicle or got into the same vehicle unaccompanied by their guardians.”

Kenneth Sikumbiri, VMMC Senior Medical Advisor at Family Health Services (FHS), elaborated on the VMMC process initiated in response to the HIV pandemic. Recognised by the WHO as a critical biomedical preventive measure, VMMC complements other strategies such as antiretroviral drugs, abstinence, fidelity, and condom use.

Launched in Malawi in 2012, and ironically, in Mulanje District by the Ministry of Health, VMMC services initially focused on Central and Southern districts.

Initially focusing on Blantyre, PSI, which later evolved into FHS, gradually expanded its VMMC services. PSI extended reach to Chiradzulu, followed by Mulanje and Phalombe, before further scaling up to Machinga and Mangochi. However, funding constraints limit their current operations to three districts: Blantyre, Mulanje, and Phalombe.

Detailing the VMMC procedure, Sikumbiri explained:

“Our approach involves close collaboration with the District Health Office (DHO). We introduce our project to the District Health Management Team (DHMT) and, with their guidance, engage with community leaders and stakeholders. Community mobilizers, appointed by village chiefs, play a crucial role in disseminating VMMC information, including the benefits and risks of the surgical procedure.”

Before they venture into any district as a partner, their first step is to engage with the District Health Office (DHO). In each district, their work is guided by the district health office. They introduce the programme to the District Health Management Team (DHMT) at the district level.

The DHMT then advises them on the necessary stakeholders to inform before they initiate their activities on the ground.

Following the DHMT’s guidance, they attend the District Executive Committee (DEC) meeting, introduced by the district health office, where they present their project. The DEC meeting, comprising all stakeholders, including traditional leaders, then votes to accept or reject the project.

“Once we receive approval from the DEC, we commence our meetings, focusing on community leaders to discuss our expectations and the type of assistance needed from the community. These community engagement meetings involve all sectors at the community level and are not one-off; they are a continuous effort,” he explained.

At the introductory stage, he said they conduct community introductory meetings, and throughout the programme’s lifecycle, they hold monthly community engagement meetings. As gatekeepers, the chiefs and village heads are at the forefront of all activities in their community.

Since this is a voluntary programme, he said they present the information and leave the decision to the community members.

Community Mobilisers, selected by the gatekeepers who are the traditional leaders, disseminate information at the household level, discussing the benefits of VMMC and the risks associated with it as a surgical procedure.

“Like any surgery, VMMC carries certain risks, which are unwanted but anticipated outcomes. For example, there’s an anticipation of bleeding during surgery, but it’s an unwanted outcome beyond our control, even as per WHO standards. Each surgery carries a percentage of these adverse events,” he explained.

Globally, he said a two per cent rate of adverse events is expected for any surgical procedure, including circumcision or caesarean section.

“Therefore, it’s unrealistic for any country to claim 100% success without any adverse events. Reporting zero adverse events would imply either a lack of monitoring or concealment of facts,” Sikumbiri said.

He said Malawi’s adverse event rate is not even at 2 per cent, as the country is doing much better, at about 0.002 per cent, which is well under the global benchmark.

“When such unwanted outcomes occur, we manage them effectively at our level. For instance, if a client experiences bleeding within 48 hours post-circumcision, we provide a toll-free number for immediate assistance. We bring them to our clinics, identify the cause, and take the necessary steps, whether it’s arresting bleeding or treating an infection, until they recover,” he explained further.

Notably, Sikumbiri said in Malawi, there have been no fatalities due to circumcision, a stark contrast to some other countries.

“We ensure the highest quality of care and manage any adverse events with due diligence.”

Regarding the process, after mobilizing clients to the clinic, he said they use a standard Ministry of Health form across all districts and among all VMMC implementing partners.

The VMMC process is thorough and patient-centric, starting with registration, where clients provide personal details, followed by group education about HIV and circumcision.

“It’s crucial that clients understand the permanence of circumcision,” Sikumbiri stressed. HIV testing and counselling are integral but not mandatory parts of the service.

“The consent process is mandatory and clear-cut,” Sikumbiri noted. “For adults, self-consent is necessary. For minors aged 15 to 17, we require both parental consent and adolescent assent. This protocol ensures voluntary participation.”

Addressing the surge in litigations, Sikumbiri expressed concern.

“The recent influx of litigations, especially from last year, is abnormal. We’ve approached the Mulanje DHO and police, as these cases appear unusual. We are committed to our process integrity and are collaborating with local authorities to investigate these trends,” he said.

Another striking irregularity identified in the case is the manipulation of health passports, which were backdated to align with the claims in the lawsuit. This practice directly conflicts with FHS’s standard procedures, which rely on a ‘Client Intake Form’ for record-keeping. Allegedly, agents and health officials colluded to acquire health passports in bulk, recording circumcision information retroactively.

Compounding the anomalies, the dates recorded for the circumcisions curiously coincide with those of reported adverse events, such as infections.

Sikumbiri says this simultaneous occurrence of circumcision and complications on the same date defies medical plausibility, casting further doubt on the authenticity of these records and the integrity of the claims.

Parallel to PIJ findings, an investigation report by Dr. Leonard Naphazi, Phalombe Medical Officer, dated November 26, 2023, presented findings from the Phalombe District Hospital, which addressed allegations concerning the VMMC program and associated court cases.

Some key findings are that guardians were approached by an individual requesting national ID cards for minors who underwent VMMC, with promises of K15,000, blankets, and suits as compensation.

“Many village heads were unaware of these transactions, while others confirmed being approached with similar promises,” the report says.

The investigation findings also refuted claims of circumcision without guardian consent, citing available signed consent forms at FHS clinics.

“A case was noted where a child’s name appeared on the lawsuit list against FHS, despite not undergoing circumcision due to medical reasons,” says Naphazi in the report.

He also indicated that post-circumcision shows no complications were reported among the visited clients, contradicting the claims made in the lawsuits.

The report concluded that the allegations made by the alleged clients were false and part of a broader deceitful scheme, as evidenced by the collection of IDs and false promises of compensation.

As the intricate web of the VMMC lawsuits unravels, recent developments have emerged from the Mulanje Police after FHS lodged a complaint.

The Public Relations Officer Moses Innocent has shed light on a crucial aspect of the investigation, revealing the arrest of two suspects linked to the case.

Aged 51 from Mikundi, Traditional Authority Mabuka, in Mulanje, Justin Iron has been implicated in a serious case of conspiracy. Innocent says Iron is accused of orchestrating a scheme to mobilize clients circumcised by Family Health Service between 2015 and 2019.

“He allegedly conspired to sue for the circumcision of children without parental consent. Further, Iron is accused of collecting MK 5,000 from each child’s parents under the guise of needing funds for health passports and photocopying national identity cards,” said Innocent.

He explained that following a complaint, the Mulanje Police opened a case file, leading to Iron’s arrest and subsequent interrogation. His alleged actions have raised significant questions about the legitimacy of the claims against PSI and the VMMC programme.

Justin Iron faces charges of conspiracy to commit a felony, obtaining money to defraud others and false pretence. These charges highlight the complexity and potential criminality underlying the lawsuit saga. His arrest led to another suspect that he mentioned: Vincent Chakhumata Banda.

The Health Passports Guardians Claim were written by Chakhumata Banda

Additionally, Chakhumata Banda, a medical personnel member at Mulanje District Hospital, has been arrested and is facing charges of abuse of office. His involvement adds another layer to the unfolding narrative, suggesting potential internal misconduct within the medical community.

During a visit to the Mulanje District Health Office, PIJ spoke with Dr. Stalin Zinkanda, the District Health Officer, who confirmed that the medical personnel involved in the case is currently out on court bail, and they are complying with the guidelines stipulated by the Malawi Public Service Regulations (MPSR) in such circumstances. He refrained from providing further details, citing the ongoing court proceedings.

New developments that surfaced involve additional suspects arrested on November 27, 2023, who have now turned state witnesses. This latest information, provided by the Mulanje Police PRO, further intensifies the case’s complexity.

A group of women, initially implicated alongside Justin Iron in the scheme to defraud PSI, have now become state witnesses. These include Stella Mkhosa, 40 years old; Grace Chimwaza, 60; Tabiya Beni, 45; and Debora Damiyano, 37.

All are residents of Namazoma Village, under Traditional Authority Mabuka in Mulanje District. These women have confessed to being enticed into lying about the circumcision issues, motivated by the promise of monetary gain.

The plot thickens with the arrest of six more women on December 4, who are part the plaintiffs as representatives of their wards: Mercy Gomani, 39; Esmy Limited, 36, both from Mulofunyo Village; Estry John (Dorothy Tauni), 35 years old, from Mukhala Village; Mwaiwawo Chikhumba, 31 and Edina Petro, 34  both from Nansira Village as well as Christina Matrouser, 34 all the women hail from Traditional Authority Mabuka in Mulanje, these women’s involvement adds yet another dimension to the already intricate case.

The police said these women’s transformation from suspects to state witnesses could significantly impact the legal proceedings. Their confessions about being lured into the scheme with promises of financial rewards shed light on the methods employed by the orchestrators of this fraud. It also raises questions about the extent of the deceit and manipulation involved in fabricating the claims against PSI and the VMMC programme.

A legal expert told PIJ that the ramifications of these arrests and subsequent charges are profound concerning the ongoing VMMC lawsuits.

“They hint at a deliberate attempt to manipulate the legal system and defraud unsuspecting individuals. The involvement of a medical professional in this matter adds a layer of complexity, suggesting possible breaches of ethical conduct,” explained the legal expert.

As the Mulanje Police continue their investigation, these latest developments hint at potentially more extensive criminal activities related to the VMMC lawsuits, unravelling a web of deceit and legal exploitation.

As the story unfolds around the controversial VMMC lawsuits, recent investigative findings by Mbeya Private Investigators provide new insights. Their report, dated December 1, 2023, delves deep into the lawsuits filed against Population Services International (PSI) Malawi in Civil Cause Numbers 1828 and 1813 of 2023.

Mbeya Private Investigators focused on several key areas that included establishing the identities of plaintiffs and victims and their legal standing; investigating the circumstances surrounding the alleged circumcisions and the appointment of the legal representatives for the plaintiffs as well as assessing the legitimacy of the claims and uncovering any potential fraudulent activities.

Going by the investigators’ key findings, there are geographical discrepancies where the plaintiffs’ claims of hailing from a non-existent Traditional Authority Mkando in Phalombe were debunked. Instead, the investigation found them residing in different villages under various legitimate Traditional Authorities.

The report again established that there was no Traditional Authority Mkando in Phalombe district, citing available Traditional Authorities in the district as Kaduya, Nyezerera, Jenala, Nkhulambe, Nazombe, Nkhumba and Chiwalo.

“Traditional Authority Mkando ” was only a fictitious name created by those alleging to represent the plaintiffs for their own ulterior motives. We have rigorously verified with the Ministry of Local Government and National Unity,” reads part of the report.

In Civil Case No. 1828, the investigation revealed discrepancies in their alleged origins. Similarly, in Civil Case No. 1813, it was found that the plaintiffs came from regions different from those claimed in the lawsuit.

Just like PIJ investigations, several guardians confirmed having consented to their children’s circumcision in years preceding those claimed in the lawsuit.

The findings established that misrepresentation of minors was rampant, with some plaintiffs being adults who had willingly undergone circumcision and many individuals named as guardians in the lawsuits had no legal relation to the said minors.

The investigating firm, spearheaded by lead investigator Golden Mbeya, suspected a fraudulent scheme as certain individuals, including a Health Surveillance Assistant, were reportedly collecting National IDs under false pretences, misleading parents about compensation from PSI.

Mbeya Private Investigators also established that most of those claiming on behalf of the minors are not their legal guardians or parents.

It says a guardian has been defined under Section 2 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act as a person with lawful or legitimate custody, care or control of a child in place of a parent. It has also defined a parent to include an adoptive parent, foster parent or any person acting in whatever way as a parent.

In the findings, several alleged parents or guardians do not qualify under these definitions.

The investigators cite the case of Khilise Nazombe, who allegedly represents Robert Manyamba as neither a relative nor someone known to the mother, Mervis Khoviwa or the victim himself.

Another one is Esimey Damison, who is representing a total of 10 minors in both claims but is neither known to the minors nor their guardians and does not come from the same villages as the minors.

Fanny Nyalapa, whose child is Kondwani Sakwata, denied any knowledge of her son’s next friend, Esimey Damison and the pending case against the defendants.

“As can be noted above and other similar circumstances in the claim, there is a pattern of these next friends who are either non-existent or are fraudulently representing other people’s children without their parent’s knowledge,” reads the report.

Mbeya Private Investigators, led by Golden Mbeya, a well-trained investigator, established that these claims had been orchestrated by agents who were going around the named villages and collecting National Identification Cards from parents whose children underwent circumcision.

“Although the claim indicates that the minors underwent circumcision between the years 2021-2022, the facts on the ground indicate that most of these were circumcised either before the stated period or after the same. The period between 2021 and 2022 was systematically chosen to avoid the provisions of section 4 (1)(d) of the Limitation Act, which bars institution of proceedings to recover damages for negligence and others in personal injuries after the lapse of a period of three years,” the report observes.

The comprehensive investigation suggests that the lawsuits might be part of a larger scam targeting PSI. There appears to be a systematic effort to misrepresent facts and exploit legal processes.

Consequently, Mbeya Private Investigators recommend investigating Dawn Patrick’s Attorneys for potential misconduct, probing the roles of identified individuals in possibly deceiving villagers and further exploring the likelihood of a conspiracy to defraud PSI Malawi.

To date, PSI, with a track record of successfully performing 351,788 circumcisions since its inception, now faces a legal quagmire comprising 75 litigations filed by a total of 14 legal firms.

These firms include Mambulasa and Co, KK Attorneys, Solton Chambers, Ritz Attorneys, Msungama and Company, Russel Smith and Associates, Leos Attorneys at Law, DNC Chambers, Maele Law Practice, P&S Associates, Maxon Arnold & Associates, Mackenzie and Patrick’s, and notably, Dawn Patrick’s Attorneys.

This array of legal challenges marks a significant shift in the operational landscape for PSI, adding a complex legal dimension to its longstanding healthcare service record.

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