Former Attorney General and Justice Minister Raphael Kasambara is in Maula Prison contemplating, no doubt, how early promise led to his lonely cell.
On 22 August, he is expected to be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for conspiring to murder his friendturned-nemesis Paul Mphwiyo.
Kasambara graduated in law from the University of Malawi and obtained a further law degree at Notre Dame University in Indiana, United States.
He became a human rights activist back home and chaired the Civil Liberties Committee in 1993 as Malawi moved from the one-party state of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda to multi-party democracy, with the United Democratic Front (UDF) winning the first free elections.
He lectured at Malawi University’s Faculty of Law at Chancellor College and ran a private law firm, Ralph and Arnolds Associates.
After earning praise as a doughty defender of human rights throughout the 1990s, Kasambara’s course changed when he became the late President Bingu wa Mutharika’s Attorney General in 2004.
His friend, the political fixer Ken Zikhale Ng’oma, one of Bingu’s closest confidants and the initial organiser of Bingu’s Democratic Progressive Party, convinced the President that Kasambara would be an ideal guardian of the presidency, using his office to make life uncomfortable for presidential enemies.
Kasambara zealously intimidated or cajoled judges, prosecutors and journalists – anyone who stood in Bingu’s way. One tactic for disposing of allies that Bingu had outlived was to concoct a criminal charge – treason or corruption, normally – and quietly drop it later. The tactic is still in use.
A flavour of his style is offered by a plot he outlined to astonished drinking buddies at a Lilongwe hotel during Bingu’s first term of office. Senior UDF members were plotting to kill the President using a pistol, a knife and some stones, he said.
On 2 January 2005, four senior politicians were duly arrested for plotting treason, three of the four being found in possession of the previously mentioned items. The phoney plot rowed in one of the most fondly regarded and honest politicians Malawi had ever produced, Harry Thomson, a founder member of the UDF .
The idea that he and the others accused, Roy Commsy, Alfred Mwechumu and Jordan Kanyerere, were plotting to kill Bingu was laughable. Once the charges had done their work of clearing inconvenient politicians out of Bingu’s way, they were dropped.
The press also suffered. In March 2005, after confirming the story with the State House religious advisor, Reverend Malani Mtonga, journalist Mabvuto Banda reported that the President had called for special prayers at State House as he was hearing ‘strange noises’.
The paper reported that the President had ‘run from ghosts’.
When the local BBC correspondent, the late Ralph Tenthani, reported the same, Kasambara had both men arrested for insulting the President and prevented them obtaining compensation despite a court order.
The Lilongwe press corps has had endless experience of warnings by thugs to tread carefully over Kasambara stories and many took the hint. He had a reputation for hanging out with disreputable types on the criminal fringes, of whom his co-accused in the trial over the attack on Mphwiyo, Macdonald Kumwembe and Pika Manondo, were prime examples .
There was no walk of life where Kasambara did not seek to exercise his power. In October 2005, an ex-girlfriend, Rubina Kawonga, brought a paternity suit against him. He used his status as Attorney General to refuse to appear in court, refused a paternity test and tried to prevent the press from reporting the case. Other lawyers accused him of using his office to poach clients.
Ng’oma fell from Bingu’s favour – and Kasambara with him – after Bingu believed they had become too big for their boots. Both, however, rediscovered political favour performing their old political functions for President Joyce Banda when she succeeded Bingu on his death in 2012.
Banda appointed Kasambara Attorney General and Justice Minister in May 2012. Kasambara openly advised people who had legal cases against the government to use his legal firm or forget any hope of compensation or payment of arrears, lawyers said.
Kasambara started several treason cases under Banda which never went to trial and were never meant to. Cases were laid against Peter Mutharika (now President) and other former Ministers under Bingu: Jean Kalirani, Nicholas Dausi, Kondwani Nankhumwa, Patricia Kaliati, Symon Vuwa Kaunda and Bright Msaka.
Other DPP officials were arrested over the murder of Robert Chasowa, a student who was found dead on campus. The cases were never completed but that was often the point. The politicians would have these charges hanging over them for years, never knowing if they were going to come to trial or not.
Long after Bingu died, his former Vice-President, Cassim Chilumpha, had the trumped up charge of attempting to kill Bingu hanging over him and when Kasambara attained high office under Banda, he still refused to drop the charges.
One lawyer who despised Kasambara is Fahad Assani, a former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) under President Bakili Muluzi who replaced Kasambara as AG after his firing over Cashgate. It is widely rumoured that Assani deliberately hired prosecution lawyers for Cashgate who had been persecuted by Kasambara at some time in the past to ensure they went after him with sufficient zeal. There were plenty to choose from.
The current DPP and the lawyer prosecuting Kasambara at his conspiracy to murder trial, Mary Kachale, was being mild when she described the defence’s tactics in the recent trial as ‘mafia like’.
Conducting his own defence, Kasambara schemed and plotted and blustered. He got two judges to recuse themselves and at one point, he threatened in open court to slap Kachale. He made impromptu statements from the dock and had so intimidated his prison guards that he could refuse to wear handcuffs.
After his conviction, he leaped on to the roof of the prison van declaring his innocence and claiming the judge was ‘compromised’. He was also remanded in custody for four months during the trial for abusing the court on social media.
Kasambara has appealed the verdict.
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