Activists Gift Trapence and Macdonald Sembereka were finally granted bail on Friday by the Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court amid mounting pressure for authorities to drop charges against them.
Trapence (second accused) and Sembereka (first accused) have formally been charged with fraud related to criminal accounts concerning alleged abuse of donor funds, but the move has been condemned locally and internationally as a ploy by the State to stifle the civil society.
The accusations follow the leading role the two have played in mobilising anti-government demonstrations that have rocked Malawi in the aftermath of the disputed May 21 presidential election results.
President Peter Mutharika, who emerged victor in the polls, has consistently warned activists in the country of consequences for their actions. But during his Independence Day speech, on July 6, Mutharika threatened that “force will be met with force”.
The UN, whose agency the UNAids was the donor for a project the pair is accused of misappropriating funds from, has called for their immediate release.
Granting bail on Friday, Chief Resident Magistrate Violet Palikena Chipawo said the State had failed to demonstrate sufficient evidence that it was ready with trial; hence, would release the two.
She ordered the two to pay bail bond of K200 000 and appear before a police station every fortnight.
Trapence’s long-time civil society colleague and chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) Timothy Mtambo, who acted as one of the court sureties in the bail conditions, on Friday welcomed the bail as relief to the civil society fraternity.
“We are delighted they have been released, and it’s our hope that the case will be dismissed,” said Mtambo.
On Friday, following the UN call for immediate release of the activists, National Police Headquarters released a statement defending the prosecution of the two as lawful and dismissed assertions that the arrest was politically motivated.
The two were remanded at Maula Prison following their arrest and were charged with forgery, authoring a false document, money-laundering and operating a non-governmental organsation (NGO), known as Mango, without registering with the NGO Board.
Trapence, who is executive director for Centre for Development of the People (Cedep), is accused specifically of forging official documents of Mkango Lodge in Blantyre for a purported lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) and sex workers workshop (which allegedly never happened), uttering false documents and operating an NGO without registering with the NGO Board.
The amount alleged to have been abused totals K7.4 million.
The State, which is being represented by prosecutor Moja Phiri, pleaded for a 15-day remand for the suspect, to allow completion of investigations, arguing that their release would jeopardise the same.
Amnesty International has led the chorus of international rights bodies which have decried the arrest and termed the prosecution ‘politically motivated’.