For 116 minutes, one of the country’s most successful business moguls and philanthropist, Thom Mpinganjira, patiently stood in the dock waiting for High Court Judge Dorothy DeGabrielle to pronounce her verdict.
Throughout, Mpinganjira, in a grey suit matched with a red neck-tie and pink shirt, appeared calm and composed. Time and again he stared at the judge as she delivered her ruling and the curious audience that filled the courtroom but in line with Covid-19 preventive measures.
But the mood evidently turned horrid when DeGabrielle stated the evidence before the court proved the wealthy businessman attempted to offer a bribe to the five judges who were hearing the elections’ petition case.
Recognising that the judge’s proclamation would come with a price, Mpinganjira was noticed holding his both hands at the back before bowing down, perhaps to reflect on commencement of a convicted status.
The business tycoon’s conviction also came with revocation of his bail and transportation to Chichiri Prison for remand while waiting for sentencing on a date to be set later by the court.
He has taken one year and eight months to know his fate following his arrest by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) on January 22 2020 on allegations he attempted to bribe five judges that heard the historic May 21 2019 presidential election nullification petition.
Mpinganjira was answering to six charges under the Corrupt Practices Act (CPA) relating to attempting to induce High Court judges Mike Tembo and Healy Potani to exercise their functions corruptly by offering them K100 million. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges leveled against him.
In her ruling, DeGabrielle observed that the State had successfully proven its case against Mpinganjira and his action demonstrated he did all he could to ensure that the intended judges received the offered advantage.
She noted Mpinganjira wanted the judges to deliver a ruling in favour of the then president Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) because the party owes him K946 million.
The judge further quashed the defendants testimony that for years he had made various donations to political parties and politicians such as President Lazarus Chakwera and his Malawi Congress Party and the Vice-President Saulos Chilima and his UTM party saying his revelation was only meant to discredit them.
In mitigation, two of Mpinganjira’s lawyers Patrice Nkhono and Tamando
Chokhotho pleaded with the court for a suspended sentence arguing the businessman was, among others, a first offender, family man, had showed remorse throughout trial and also advanced in age (60 years).
Said Chokhotho: “As a matter of social responsibility he has built and supported several churches, pays school fees for disadvantaged children, he is also an investor and entrepreneur who employees hundreds of people and by reason of conviction if he were to be put in custodial confinement such employees and their families would likely suffer.”
The defence also told the court in mitigation that Mpinganjira’s health had been compromised and was in frequent need of medical attention since he suffered Covid-19.
The defence also pleaded with the court to consider sections 339 and 340 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code (CP&EC) which provide the need for the court to mete out a suspended sentence.
But the State represented by Reyneck Matemba, Victor Chiwala and Chikumbutso Harawa quashed all the mitigating factors advanced by the defence arguing Mpinganjira’s integrity and uprightness had been eroded by the offence committed.
In his response, Matemba who is also Secretary for Justice and Solicitor General, said what Mpinganjira did was a serious offence to defeat the wheels of justice.
He said: “The convict wanted to use his wealth, power and strength to manipulate the justice system. We have a law in this country and it has to be complied with by every Malawian including the convict.“
After the ruling, the defence lawyers declined to comment on the conviction saying they will do so after the sentencing.
But on his part, Matemba said they were happy that justice has been served at the end of the day.
“That is the most important thing for us. All we wanted was justice to be done and it has been done. In our view, there was no mitigating factor and if you heard what the defence counsel said in response to what we had said, in our view, they miserably failed.
“We think there are more aggravating factors than mitigating factors but the discretion to mete out a sentence rests with the court. For us what we wanted and what we want is the court to give a custodial sentence and not a suspended sentence. As for the number of years to give the convict it will be up to the court to decide,” he said.
Matemba said it was unfortunate that from the word go the defence tried not only to derail but delay the case but did not succeed.
“I can assure you that the moment we received a complaint from the Chief Justice it was not easy to investigate this case considering the environment in which we were operating in at the time.
“I must commend the investigators at ACB that fearlessly investigated this case. I will not mention their names but they are a daughter and sons of Malawi that must be commended for taking courage to investigate this case.
“Likewise it was not easy for the prosecutors to prosecute the case.
We have been to the Magistrate Court, High Court and the Supreme Court responding to a number of applications all meant to delay and derail this case. There were other attempts aimed at compromising the prosecution team but we stood above all that,” said Matemba.
He also commended the judges for remaining faithful to their judicial oath by reporting the matter to the Chief Justice who in turn reported to ACB.
“It wasn’t easy on their part and we must commend them as a country and even the trial judge, the one who has tried this case, it wasn’t easy. All in all we have prevailed and the people of Malawi, all those well meaning Malawians have prevailed, and must commend themselves for maintaining faith in the prosecution team that will do justice according to law,” he said.
Several high profile personalities were in the courtroom and they included business tycoon Leston Mulli of Mulli Group of Companies, politician and former Cabinet minister and also former personal aide to President Mutharika Ben Phiri, politician Chipiliro Mpinganjira, lawyer Chancy Gondwe, among others.