Malawi: Former Attorney General returned to prison despite bail order

The Malawian authorities must comply immediately with a court order to free former Attorney General Ralph Kasambara on bail, Amnesty International said after he was rearrested on Wednesday night, just hours after his release from detention.

Ralph Kasambara was first arrested on Monday after a scuffle broke out when a group of five men allegedly attempted to petrol bomb his office in Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital.

A day earlier, two national newspapers had quoted the lawyer as criticizing Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika.

“The rearrest of Ralph Kasambara indicates the Malawian authorities are willing blatantly to flout the law when it comes to dissenting voices,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s Deputy Program Director for Africa.

“Such disregard for the judicial process is an alarming sign for the human rights of perceived critics of the government in Malawi, suggesting that the authorities are willing to stop at nothing to silence their critics.”

On Thursday, Ralph Kasambara’s lawyers Wapona Kita and Jonathon Kara were summoned by the directors of Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau to answer questions in relation to their client being granted bail.

“It would appear the authorities are pulling out all stops to ensure Ralph Kasambara remains in custody,” said Noel Kututwa.

On Monday a group of five men carrying a can of petrol arrived at the prominent lawyer’s office, asking people in the vicinity about his whereabouts. Five security officers responded to the scene, prompting two of the alleged attackers to flee.

The other three apparently admitted, after his security team used force, that they had been sent by government officials to attack Ralph Kasambara. Police arrived at the scene and arrested the lawyer, his security team and the three remaining men. When they arrived at Blantyre Police Station, Ralph Kasambara and his security team were detained and charged with assault before being transferred to the city’s Chichiri Prison.

The three men who were also arrested at his office are apparently no longer in custody, having been driven away from the police station in an unmarked car.

The next day, a Blantyre Magistrate granted Kasambara bail on 20,000 Malawian Kwacha (equivalent to US $120) on the condition he report to police once a week.  He was returned to prison for one night before his release could be processed.

His release on Wednesday morning was delayed when police arrived at the Chichiri Prison with a search warrant and requested he accompany them to his office and home. He refused to go, but the search went ahead.

Kasambara was released on Wednesday afternoon and returned briefly to his home before armed police rearrested him and returned him to Chichiri Prison. No additional charges have been made.

Ralph Kasambara is one of a number of people in Malawi, including human rights defenders, journalists and civil society activists, who have been targeted since early 2011 for criticizing the government on issues including human rights, governance and the economy.

The intimidation has taken the form of death threats, forced entry to homes and offices, petrol bombings and other attacks. Threats have come from people who say they are aligned with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or by men believed to be state security agents.

Human rights defenders speaking at international forums and those involved in organizing anti-government demonstrations have been publicly criticized and threatened with violence and arrest by government officials, including President Mutharika.

Amnesty International expressed concern throughout 2011 about increased repression and threats to Malawians’ freedom of expression, association and assembly.