Persecution of Kasambara: Malawi slide towards a police state

The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) condemn this week’s persecution of Malawi’s former Attorney-General, Ralph Kasambara, and express alarm at the country’s continuing slide away from established principles of democracy and rule of law.

A high-profile lawyer and outspoken critic of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Kasambara is still behind bars four days after being arrested and charged with assault for intercepting a group of people suspected of attempting to firebomb his offices. The attack on his law practice is the latest in a series of bombings of prominent human rights lawyers and civic actors.

After his initial arrest on Monday 13 February, Kasambara’s lawyers obtained a court order granting him bail that same day.  However, police delayed releasing him until Wednesday morning. He was re-arrested that afternoon by a large contingent of police on the grounds that the release had not followed the correct procedure. Noticeably, despite the same procedure having been followed, members of his security detail who were detained and released alongside him have not been re-arrested.

Kasambara: Facing political persecution

Currently Kasambara is being detained at Zomba Maximum security prison (about 100km outside Blantyre). By law, Kasambara should be held in remand, rather than in a prison. Lawyers acting for Kasambara, Wapona Kita and Jonathan Kara, have been summoned to appear before the Anti-Corruption Bureau – as has the Magistrate who ordered Kasambara’s release on bail.

The attempted attack on Kasambara’s law practice, the continuing disregard for his right to fair trial and due process, and the intimidation of those associated with his case, illustrate the current government’s resolve to undermine the rule of law, violate basic freedoms and silence those who voice dissent. Of particular concern is the fact that the police appear to have been given carte blanche powers to deal with critics.  Those who were suspected of planning to attack Kasmabara’s office have not been apprehended.

SALC and OSISA call on the government to ensure that Ralph Kasambara is fully afforded his rights to due process and fair trial. We further call on the government of Malawi to rein in the increasingly powerful police, and bring those who firebomb the offices of lawyers and human rights defenders to book.

Additional information:

The persecution of former Attorney-General, Kasambara is the most recent in a series of attacks on those viewed as government critics, particularly lawyers and human rights defenders. Notably, many have been targeted through attempted firebombing.

Patrick Mpaka, another high-profile lawyer, has repeatedly been the target of arson attacks. On 10 September 2011 his house was set alight and in January 2012 he sustained minor burns when the car he was travelling in caught fire after a petrol bomb was thrown into its boot.

On Monday, 12 February, the same day that Mr Kasambara was arrested, four petrol bombs were found on Mr Mpaka’s premises, although no damage was sustained to his person or property. Mr Mpaka is involved in a high-profile case where he represents Mary Woodworth.  It is believed that the attacks on Mr Mpaka have been orchestrated by business partners of the President who hope to obtain land owned by Ms Woodworth.

Other victims of arson attacks include opposition politician Salim Bagus, whose house was destroyed by a fire on 18 September 2011 and outspoken cleric Rev. MacDonald Sembereka whose house burnt down on 10 September 2011.  The offices of the Institute for Policy Interaction were razed on 2 September 2011.  The Institute’s executive director, Rafik Hajat, was one of the activists responsible for organising the anti-government protests in 2011.

A number of activists have also been harassed and threatened because of their opposition to government policies.  Education activist, Benedicto Kondowe has reported receiving numerous telephone calls indicating that his actions were being monitored and that he would be killed if he did not stop demanding government reform.

Dorothy Ngoma, director of the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi, reported going into hiding in 2011 after receiving numerous, credible death threats from anonymous sources. Peter Chinoko, of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, and his neighbour Mike Kakatera, who is also a human rights activist, were attacked in their homes on 25 September 2011 by a group of 20 men.  Several other lawyers engaged in matters that have earned the government’s displeasure also report being harassed and having had their offices broken into.

Last year, the death of Robert Chasowa, a student activist, raised suspicions of government involvement in his killing.  Officially his death was ruled a suicide and the police maintain that he jumped from a fifth storey window.  Members of his family have disputed this and claim that the injuries he suffered are inconsistent with having fallen such a distance and instead should have been investigated as evidence of an assault.

The President himself has vowed to silence protesters and opponents and has threatened to “smoke out” those he accuses of treason.  The increasing number of attacks and harassment of activists advocating for reform in Malawi indicates that this threat is being carried out.

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