United Transformation Movement (UTM) social- media activist Manes Winnie Hale is denying the charges of insulting President Peter Mutharika when she appeared before Lilongwe Magistrate Court but her lawyer says the charges were frivolous or vexatious.
Hale, 44, well known on Facebook with the name ‘Abiti Manice Dawood’ was arrested on Tuesday morning at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe when she was about to catch a flight back to the US where she is based and works as a nurse in Maryland.
Police took her to court on Wednesday where she was formally charged for a colonial-era insult law, which quotes heavy fines and up to two years in jail for those who air or publish material that insults or disrespects the President.
Hale pleaded “not guilty” to a charge of ‘publishing some writings [on Facebook] making reference to the president as being a liar, a thief and being demented.”
The offence is covered in Section 4 of the Pebal Code.
But her bail bid was approved by principal resident magistrate Viva Nyimba.
“The matter may have some political overtones but the court will decide according to law and submissions made. The accused’s case provides punishment of 1 000 pounds or two years imprisonment. This means the case is a misdemeanour not a felony,” said Nyimba before granting bail.
However, her lead attorney Dr Chikosa Silungwe said the charges were vague.
“The charge itself is not clear; it simply says she insulted the President by calling him a thief, corrupt and demented. Thats the words they have used,” Silungwe told BBC Network Africa on Wednesday evening.
“They haven’t actually specified the actual words In criminal cases one need to be more specific to actual words your are alleging the defendant used,” said the lawyer.
“What one wants to see in a case of this nature is that the State has to be a little bit more specific.
The charge says that’s the effect of the language used on her Facebook wall. One would want a little bit more specific words that the defendant is alleged to have used,” said Silungwe.
Silungwe said social media is awash with criticism of public officers and it’s not peculiar to Malawi
“And I think it happens everywhere. But why this person [Manice Hale], I think the State would be best placed to answer that,” he said.
She has claimed to be related to the Mutharikas, saying her mother was a sister to the late first lady Ethel, who was the late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s first wife.
Her arrest comes within days of President Mutharika publicly stating that Section 4 of the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act could be used to prosecute those he accused of insulting him.
Silungwe said that it is a surprise to the extent that an alleged violation of a law l “is a provision that has not been used for a long time.”
Asked by BBC how ‘Abiti Manice’ was keeping up following the development, Silungwe said: “She is in good spirit given the circumstances.”
One of Hale’s lawyers Nicely Msowoya said Police have several Facebook posts on her page they thought insinuated an attack on the President.
Police senior superintendent Moya Phiri, prosecuting, asked the court not to release Hale on bail, arguing they needed more time to investigate but Nyimba ruled that there is not enough evidence that she may interfere with police investigations.
Among the bail conditions, Hale who is originally from Kambuku village, Traditional Authority Kwataine in Ntcheu and now a naturalised United Stated citizen, surrendered all her travel documents to police.
She is due to appear in court again September 6 for trial, but Nyimba said in the event that the trial takes long, she may “apply to vary some conditions” such as reporting to National police every Friday fortnightly.
Patricia Kaliati, a UTM interim secretary general, who was in court, described Hale’s arrest as political retribution.
Early this year, a 25-year old teacher, Mike Suedi, was convicted by the Blantyre First Grade Magistrate Court for insulting the President.
Suedi, who comes from Khwalala Village, Traditional Authority Juma in Mulanje, was arrested at Chileka a day before the President commissioned the construction of the dual carriageway from Chileka Airport to Clock Tower in Blantyre City.
The insults which he was charged with cannot be repeated.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :