Top Malawi officials charged with treason

March 13, 2013 - 2:28 PM
Malawi Arrests

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2012 file photo, Malawi President Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Malawi's government said Monday, March 11, 2013 that it has arrested at least 10 former top government officials for allegedly plotting a coup to stop then-Vice President Joyce Banda from becoming president after the death of former President Bingu wa Mutharika last year. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) — Malawi's courts on Wednesday charged 12 top government officials and former cabinet ministers with treason for an alleged coup plot last year following the sudden death of former Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika last April.

The charges were confirmed by the Magistrates Court in the capital, Lilongwe, following the release of an official report into Mutharika's death which alleged that the officials tried to prevent then Vice President Joyce Banda from becoming president.

An additional charge of inciting mutiny was lodged against Peter Mutharika, the late president's brother, Chief Secretary to the Government Bright Msaka and Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe, who was Finance Minister in the Mutharika administration. The three allegedly urged Army Commander General Henry Odillo to order "the army to just take over" to prevent Banda from becoming president, according to the inquiry report.

Neither Gondwe nor former Health Minister Jean Kalirani appeared in court because they had collapsed in police cells Monday night and were taken to hospital. One of the 12, Mutharika's former legal adviser Allan Ntata, has been in Britain since Mutharika's death and so did not appear in court.

Eight of the suspects were returned to police cells awaiting bail application on Thursday. Former presidential guard commander Duncan Mwapasa was released on bail.

Hundreds of supporters of the former ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, including former First Lady Callista Mutharika, thronged the Lilongwe court to give their leaders moral support. But there were no incidents of violence as heavily-armed police officers kept a close watch.

George Chaponda, parliamentary leader of the DPP, said the charges are political.

"There are a lot of problems in the country to waste time on this," he said. "Government is only trying to divert attention from real problems."

Malawi, one of Africa's poorest countries, is struggling with high inflation and many people are unhappy with tough economic reforms that are backed by the International Monetary Fund.

Mutharika, who became Malawi's president in 2004, collapsed in his office and died from cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012. President Banda ordered an official investigation into the events surrounding Mutharika's death. She received the report last week last week and law enforcement agencies advised her that criminal offences were committed, which led to the treason charges.

The report found that soon after the death of Mutharika, cabinet ministers and senior government officials held a number of secret meetings aimed at preventing then Vice President Banda from assuming power as stipulated by the constitution.

Mutharika and Banda had fallen out as her boss wanted his younger brother, Peter, to take over from him when he retired in 2014. Banda objected to that and was expelled from the ruling party. She then founded her own People's Party but she remained the government's vice president.

According to the report, the younger Mutharika and Gondwe had suggested to Army Commander Gen. Henry Odillo that the army "just take over." But Odillo told the commission "he was uncomfortable with the suggestion for it was not provided for in the constitution."

As the government ministers haggled over what to do, they delayed confirmation of Mutharika's death and instead sent the president's dead body to South Africa for, according to former Information Minister Kaliati's April 6 midnight press conference, "further treatment."

The administration eventually admitted Mutharika's death on April 7 and Banda was sworn in on the same day. She fired most of Mutharika's ministers but retained a few, including Gondwe.