The decision by the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal to slap Youth and Society (YAS) executive director Charles Kajoloweka with a K21.6 million costs bill has stirred debate with human rights defenders fearing it will stifle activism.
The court ordered the human rights activist to pay K21 648 675 as costs in a case in which he sued President Peter Mutharika to fire his then Cabinet minister George Chaponda in connection with a controversial 2017 maize import deal.
In separate interviews yesterday, activists and commentators described the order as exorbitant and unrealistic, especially considering that Kajoloweka was carrying out his duties in the interest of the public.
In a written response, Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) executive director Gift Trapence feared the order will restrict activists from taking up on issues for fear of such reprisals.
He said: “This will stop human rights defenders and citizens from taking cases to court on accountability issues. This is also one way of shrinking civic space. Those in power will feel protected to abuse resources because they will know that citizens will not take them to task.”
Human Rights Defenders Coalition member Thokozani Mapemba said in a telephone interview yesterday that the order has instilled fear among human rights activists and civil society organisations (CSOs).
“Most CSOs will refrain from taking judicial action for fear that if there is no evidence, they will likely be victims. It will now be hard to drag some accountability cases to court fearing what might come afterwards,” he said.
Political analyst Mustapha Hussein of Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said agreed with Trapence and Mapemba, emphasising that it will deeply affect the CSOs work.
He said: “This might have a deterrent effect in the sense that civil society leaders find such restricting in their activities because the civil society intentions are to advance good governance.”
In a written response, Malawi Law Society (MLS) honorary secretary Martha Kaukonde said if the order was made in such a manner, there might be compelling circumstances justifying the figure because orders to pay costs are made after taxation.
“If indeed the costs were duly taxed and all procedures followed, the case may not have any serious implications because costs are awarded on a case to case basis,” she said.
But Kaukonde said the decision should not discourage people who would have an interest in taking up such matters before the courts as circumstances are likely to be different in future cases.
Initially, government through Attorney General (AG) Kalekeni Kaphale demanded K15 million from Kajoloweka in through a letter dated February 25 2019.
However, in his response to the letter, Kajoloweka through lawyer Wesley Mwafulirwa of Kawelo lawyers said he could only pay K500 000.
When asked about his options following the court order, Kajoloweka yesterday said he will obey the court order.