Malawian opposition politicians who appeared before the high court yesterday accused of plotting a coup against the president, Joyce Banda, have denounced their prosecution as “political”.
Twelve senior politicians and government officials, including the brother of the late president, Bingu wa Mutharika, were granted bail following the day-long hearing and emerged from court to songs and cheers from supporters of their DPP party.
They claim they are being prosecuted to distract attention from the larger problems facing the south-east African country.
They face a raft of charges including treason and “disobeying the constitution” for trying to prevent power being transferred to the then vice-president Mrs Banda when Mr Mutharika died in office on 5 April last year.
Peter Mutharika – now the presidential candidate for the opposition DPP and Mr Mutharika’s choice to succeed him – allegedly asked the military to take over after his brother’s death, an official report said last week.
Mutharika, a serving minister and several former ministers were released on £400 bail on the condition they report to police every fortnight.
Prosecutor Ralph Mhone had argued their release could “jeopardise ongoing investigations”.
They were greeted outside the court by cheering DPP supporters. George Chaponda, parliamentary leader of the DPP, told the crowd: “There are a lot of problems in the country to waste time on this. [The] government is only trying to divert attention from real problems.”
Mrs Banda has won plaudits from the international community, which provides 40 per cent of Malawi’s development budget, for pledging to cut profligacy and corruption. But her decision to devalue the local kwacha currency in line with International Monetary Fund recommendations has sent inflation soaring, along with the cost of food and fuel, and taken the shine off her reputation.
Last year, she told The Scotsman how Mr Mutharika’s sudden death – and the refusal of those around him to confirm it for several days – pushed Malawi to the brink of a coup and she was forced to ring around other presidents in the region to ask them to intervene.
Malawi’s Cabinet, MPs and most of its judiciary, she said, initially rallied round Peter Mutharika and sought to obtain a court order to keep her from taking over. She claimed that, within the military, there were also calls for a coup until the army commander backed her and surrounded her house with troops for protection.
“At that point 15 ministers abandoned Peter Mutharika’s house and came running to my house,” she said.
The treason charge – which can carry the death penalty –followed the release of the official report into Mr Mutharika’s death which found that his body was flown to South Africa to stall the process of Mrs Banda taking over. She has maintained she had no hand in pressing charges, merely handing the report to police.
The arrests at the beginning of the week sparked protests in which police fired teargas and fought running battles with DPP supporters around Lilongwe.
John Gift Mwakhwawa, a former president of the Malawi Law Society, said the charges had been expected. “This might be a blow for the DPP but it would be setting a very bad precedent if such conduct had not been addressed before the courts,” he said. “This is not a political witchhunt.”
Steve Sharra, a Malawian blogger, said DPP supporters saw it as a “political vendetta”.