The Blantyre Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday convicted 21 people arrested early this month for invading the privately-owned Conforzi Estate in Thyolo.
The court found the 21 guilty after they changed their plea from not guilty to guilty following a “professional advice” from their lawyer Michael Goba Chipeta.
However, senior resident magistrate Thokozani Soko adjourned hearing of the case for leader of the People’s Land Organisation (PLO) Vincent Wandale and Tendai Nsikita, both of whom pleaded not guilty to the counts.
All the 23 were answering three counts of conspiracy to commit a misdemeanour, unauthorised use of land and criminal trespass, but in addition to the counts, Wandale and his deputy Chrispin Nkhoma, are also answering the charge of inciting violence.
Their arrest followed an incident that happened on September 1 at Conforzi Estate where hundreds of villagers invaded the tea estate and started sharing land for permanent settlement and cultivation.
Earlier in the day, the court moved to the scene of incident where State witness Aniz Suleman told the court what actually happened on the material day.
In his submission, Suleman, whose family owns the estate, told the court how the villagers led by PLO invaded the land, cut down macadamia nuts and other trees and started constructing houses.
Hundreds of the accused’s relations wearing sombre faces lined up the road leading to the scene- about six kilometres deep into the estate.
There was simmering tension at the scene with over 50 plain-clothed and armed police officers providing security to the open court proceedings that took only about 30 minutes.
The accused’s relations were not allowed near the scene as they were kept away at a distance of about 300 metres.
Proceedings continued at the Magistrate’s Court in Blantyre later in the afternoon where the court convicted the 21 people.
The 21 had earlier pleaded not guilty to the offences, but after advice from their lawyer, they all pleaded guilty to the three counts.
In its plea, the State asked the court to give stiffer punishments arguing, despite the convicts being first offenders, they needed a penalty that would deter others from committing a similar offence.
Further, they also prayed to the court to use its powers to restrict the convicts from going to the place (Conforzi) again without consent from the owner.
But in mitigation, lawyer for the convicts sought the court to look at the context of the case with administration of justice in mind considering that the convicts’ grievances related to land were genuinely documented.
Chipeta also made reference to a 1999 presidential commission of inquiry on land policy reform which, among others, concluded that most of the land now being used as estates was obtained under concessions which were “fraud.”
He said: “It is within that context that I seek the court to use its wide range of powers… it is possible to give suspended sentences, punishments like community service or indeed probation other than custodial sentences.”
The court then adjourned the case to Monday next week for sentencing.
In an interview later, Chipeta said he expected the court to consider the context within which the offences were committed and also the fact that the convicts were first offenders.