Malawi may have sparked a diplomatic incident with the United States (US) after the arrest of Manes Winnie Hale at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe yesterday morning.
In an e-mail response last evening, US public affairs officer at the American Embassy in Lilongwe, Douglas Johnston, said Winnie is an American citizen and that they are demanding information on her arrest.
Johnston said: “We are aware that a citizen of the United States of America, Mrs. Manes Winnie Hale, was detained by the Malawian Police this morning, and that she remains in custody.
“Our Embassy’s consular officer has visited Mrs. Hale today [Tuesday]. We have asked the Malawian authorities for, and are waiting for them to provide, further information about Mrs. Hale’s arrest.”
Hale was about to catch a flight back to the US where she is based after being spotted attending some rallies by Vice-President Saulos Chilima-led United Transformation Movement (UTM).
She has claimed to be related to the Mutharikas, saying her mother was a sister to the late first lady Ethel, who was the late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s first wife.
While confirming the arrest, National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said: “I have no further details as I am in Mponela” in Dowa where President Peter Mutharika was launching the Satellite Television Villages Project.
Police have accused Hale of insulting President Peter Mutharika, an alleged violation of a law legal scholars said last week is archaic and inconsistent with the Constitution of Malawi.
As of last evening, Hale remained in police custody at an undisclosed location pending bail.
In an interview yesterday, Hale’s lawyer Nicely Msowoya—who confirmed that Police charged her client with insulting the President of the Republic, particularly through her social media posts, said Hale was likely to appear in court today.
“When reading out the charges to her, the Police read out several Facebook posts on her page. Some of them are unrelated as they just took everything they thought insinuated an attack on the President.
“Of course, that is subject to how the police handles the matter. They will compile a court docket from the investigations and send it to the prosecution department, which will prepare a charge sheet,” said Msowoya.
The arrest comes within days of President Mutharika publicly stating that Section 4 of the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act could be used to prosecute those he accused of insulting him.
Hale’s arrest sparked running battles between UTM supporters and police officers at Malawi Police headquarters at Area 30 in Lilongwe as the group pressed to see Hale and demanded her freedom.
The Nation observed heavy police presence at all gates leading to Area 30 and the situation was tense.
Our crew was denied entry through the Nankhaka Stadium entrance where five heavily armed officers were manning the gate.
A riot police vehicle popularly known as Chimbaula was stationed at the main entrance with police mobile force in full riot gear.
A few minutes later, people who had converged at Petroda Service Station just opposite the main gate started shouting while asking the police not to interfere. But the police quickly moved in and started firing tear gas.
A woman working in a shop at the service station lay on the ground in agony after inhaling tear gas before she and another woman were taken to hospital.
As some of the people resorted to pelting stones at the police, the law enforcers hit back by firing more tear gas.