Treason is the principal charge! The State on Wednesday formally charged with treason DPP interim president Peter Mutharika, Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe and nine others arrested on Monday in the aftermath of a Commission of Inquiry Report that has exposed attempts to circumvent constitutional order last April soon after the death of former Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika.
Lilongwe chief resident magistrate Ruth Chinangwa read seven charges with all the suspects jointly being charged on two of them, including the sixth count of “disobedience to statutory duty… for disobeying the Constitution by denying that the then vice-president [Joyce Banda] had automatically taken over the presidency despite knowing that Mutharika had died.”
The interdicted chief secretary to Malawi Government, Bright Msaka, faces two charges of his own on count number four and count number five. These are breach of trust by a public officer for his failure to announce the death of Mutharika and negligence of official duty for his failure to inform the nation about the death of Mutharika despite knowing that the president had died.
Peter and Msaka also face a joint charge on count two where they are accused of inciting mutiny when they allegedly “incited Army Commander General Henry Odillo to take over the country and also to issue a public announcement on the said takeover”.
Further, Peter and Msaka are also jointly charged with Gondwe and former minister of Health Jean Kalirani on count three where they are being accused of conspiring to commit a felony by “conspiring within yourselves and some other unknown person to commit treason”.
The surprise inclusion among the suspects was former legal adviser to the late Mutharika, lawyer Allan Ntata who, alongside Gondwe and Kalilani, were charged in absentia.
Ntata is out of the country whereas Gondwe and Kalilani are in hospital; hence, did not attend the court proceedings.
On the other hand, former presidential guard commander Duncan Mwapasa is yet to be formally charged after his name was not included on the charge sheet. The State said that being currently on police bail, they were not expecting him in court.
The seventh count involves giving false evidence to the Commission of Inquiry and it has been levelled against Peter, Msaka and Kalilani.
Besides Peter, Msaka, Gondwe, Kalilani and Mwapasa, other suspects in the case are Msaka’s former deputy Necton Mhura, former ministers Patricia Kaliati (Information and Civic Education), Symon Vuwa Kaunda (Sports and Youth Development) and Henry Mussa (Local Government and Rural Development). Former deputy ministers Kondwani Nankhumwa (Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) and Nicholas Dausi (in the Office of the President).
The suspects are yet to take plea to the charges after the lead prosecutor, private practice lawyer Ralph Mhone, asked the court that, procedurally, it would not be in order to have the pleas taken at that stage.
The initial appearance in court of nine of 12 accused did not go without its own drama as police cordoned off the court premises to prevent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters who had gathered in hundreds to get in.
The suspects were brought in through the High Court gate behind the magistrate’s court and were ushered into the courtroom using a back door.
As the proceedings were about to start, there was more drama after it was discovered that Mwapasa, who was sitting on the accused benches, was not on the formal charge sheet. Instead, it was Ntata who was being read as the 11th accused.
Mhone intervened, telling the magistrate that Mwapasa was not on the charge list because the State thought he would not appear in court with the others since he was on police bail.
And when the magistrate read the sixth count, Peter said he did not understand it. The suspect said the Constitution was not an Act of Parliament; hence, disobeying it cannot be regarded as disobeying a statutory duty.
However, his objection did not go down well with the prosecution team which pointed out that the accused has legal representation in the court and that at that stage, the presiding magistrate was not asking for legal understanding of the charge, but rather whether the accused noted the charge.
Here, the defence lawyers asked for a five-minute adjournment and when the court reconvened at 3.30pm, one of the defence lawyers, Samuel Tembenu, asked the court to proceed with reading the counts.
Ironically, Peter affirmed, albeit conditionally, on the charge while the rest of the accused said they did not understand the charge.
Chinangwa has committed the case to the High Court and the suspects are expected to appear at the High Court in Lilongwe today (Thursday).
More drama followed after the court proceedings after it transpired that the nine were being taken to Maula Prison instead of their respective police cells. It took defence lawyer Kalekeni Kaphale to negotiate with the police to take the suspects to Kanengo and Lumbadzi respectively.
However, despite the agreement, the police vehicles drove straight to Maula Prison. Later, the suspects were taken to Lumbadzi and Kanengo police stations after they refused to get into the cells there.