The Blantyre Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday sentenced 35 foreign and Malawian nationals caught logging in Lengwe National Park to 18 and 12 months respectively.
Out of the 35, 23 are Mozambicans, two Chinese and 10 Malawians were convicted last month on three counts of entering into a protected area, conveying, possession and using prohibited weapons in a protected area and disturbance of indigenous species in a protected area.
They were extracting the Mopane trees from the Extension Area of Lengwe National Park and transporting them into Mozambique to sell.
For the offence of entering into a protected area Chief Resident Magistrate Thom Ligowe gave the 35 who pleaded not guilty to all the charges a 12 months custodial sentence.
For the second and third offence, Ligowe gave 24 of the convicts an 18 months custodial sentence and 12 months for the remaining 11 whom he said evidence in the court showed that they were less involved in committing the crime. He said the sentences would run concurrently.
Ligowe also ruled that all equipment used in the crime be confiscated and that two vehicles a Toyota Land Cruser and Twin cab (Hilux) be given to the Directorate of Parks and Wild Life and the Judiciary respectively.
“The rest should be sold by the sheriffs and the money be deposited into the National Wildlife Fund,” he said.
The confiscated property include six 4×4 Tractors, two Caterpillar ‘bulldozer’ road graders, a thirty-ton lorry, a Toyota Hilux, a Toyota Landcruiser, two chainsaws and four motorbikes.
According to Ligowe, maximum sentence for the offence is payment of K100 000 or an amount not less than the value in the specimen used in commissioning of the offence and ten years Imprisonment with Hard Labour.
He said he gave that sentence considering that they were first offenders adding that there is no any option for a fine in the National Protection of Wild Life Act.
Defence lawyers George Kaliwo and Joseph Kamkwasi described the sentence as painful considering the worthy of property confiscated which they put at $500 000 (about K370 Million). They argued that the value of the cut down trees was not proven by the court.
They also argued that the devastation of the Lengwe National Park was not only caused by their clients and expressed disappointment that no option of a fine was given while the offence is a finable case.
The two have therefore said they will make an appeal on the case immediately.
However, commenting on the outcome of the court, Director of Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa expressed satisfaction with the sentence.
“I am so excited that they have been given a custodial sentence and not an option for a fine. This is what we were looking for and we are so happy about it,” he said.
The 35 were discovered logging into the protected area on November 2, 2016, approximately five kilometres from the Mozambique border. Over 240 000 Mopane trees were said to have been extracted by the convict since March 2016.
This comes against the background of wanton cutting down of trees in the country’s forest reserves forcing government to deploy soldiers in some reserves to curb the vice.