There was jubilation at the High Court yesterday when chief resident magistrate Violet Chipao granted bail to three Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) leaders who have been kept in police custody since Sunday.
After their release, people who came to witness the ruling chanted, boma, boma, boma, and abwana, abwana outside the court, some metres from the main gate where they waited as the court was in session.
The three, Timothy Mtambo (chairperson), Gift Trapence (vice-chairperson) and MacDonald Sembereka (chairperson for HRDC in the Centre), were arrested on allegations that they wanted to shut down State residences as part of making the President assent to Electoral Reforms Bills.
On Wednesday the State, through lead prosecutor Nepia Chafikana, asked the court to keep the accused in custody so that they conclude with their investigations as well as keep them for their own safety from some quarters of the public.
The State also didn’t want them to influence witnesses who are reporters and police officers who attended a press briefing the trio held on March 6 at Lingadzi Inn in Lilongwe.
In her ruling, Chipao faulted the State for failing to back its arguments for denying the three bail.
For instance, she said arguments by the State lacked evidence and therefore not in line with the Bail Guidelines Act of 2000, which has four main considerations for not granting bail when a suspect is arrested.
“The State did not raise issues that the accused may not attend trial once released on bail; secondly, on influencing witnesses, the State needed to take responsibility to show how it will happen and show the evidence on the same, which is not there, except that the State said there are reporters and police officers who attended (the press briefing), without properly identifying them,” she said.
Chipao further said the State also failed to state whether the accused were likely to commit another offence if released and also that there will be public disorder.
She has since ordered that the three pay a cash bond of K200 000 each; non-cash bond in terms of surety of K2 million each; and that they should not interfere with police investigations and that they should report to Area 30 Police Headquarters every Friday.
The trial for the three has been set for April 9 and 10. They have jointly been charged with four counts which are all centred on mobilising people to break the law, contrary to Section 124 (1)(b) of the Penal Code to which they have all pleaded not guilty.
In the first count they are accused of saying words that that indicated to members of the general public that it was desirable for them to contravene Section 103 of the Police Act by mobilizing people to shut down Sanjika Palace.
The second, third and fourth counts are about contravening Section 103 of the Police Act by mobilising people to shut down Kamuzu Palace, Mzuzu and Chikoko-Bay State Lodges.
Speaking to their supporters at the court after being granted the bail, the trio promised to continue holding demonstrations and said they will not relent in their fight for justice.
Mtambo said there was no way they were going to hold back because of the arrests, promising to make “Jericho fall”.
“The job we started should continue, we want to deliver a new Malawi, no kind of intimidation will stop us. I know that yesterday you injected me with something but I am fine now, no one is going to kill us, this country needs a change,”
“We will still go to State House using legal ways. They cannot stop us, the President is our father and he needs to listen to our plea. If they don’t want us to go on 25th of March, they should sign the Electoral Reforms Bills and fire Jane Ansah. We will deal with anyone who wants to deter the fresh elections. DPP guys went to State House, how is it a crime for us to go there?” he said.
Lawyer for the trio, Khwima Mchizi, said his clients have not committed any crime until proven guilty; hence, it was not proper to say they should not be given bail as if they have been charged.
Sembereka and Trapence were arrested on Sunday few hours after President Peter Mutharika threatened to deal with HRDC leaders if they went ahead organising demonstrations to shut down State residences on March 25 2020 while Mtambo handed himself to police on Tuesday.