on dictatorship and political imprisonment: the case of contemporary Malawi
Ralph Kasambara, former attorney general and current outspoken critic of Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, is currently being held in the “condemned cells” (typically reserved for those on death row or facing life imprisonment) of Malawi’s maximum security prison in Zomba. Kasambara was originally arrested Monday, then let out on bail Wednesday, only to be rearrested hours later. Amnesty International called for the release of Kasambara, and spoke generally about the decline of human rights and governance in Malawi:
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.
It is unclear what Kasambara has been charged with. The rearrest was apparently predicated on the skepticism of the Central Investigations Department (CID) as to how Kasambara could have received court bail when the judiciary support staff were on strike. (Yet the CID managed to get a search warrant at the same time said judiciary staff were on strike.) Whatever the specifics, many believe the reason Kasambara is a target is an interview he gave over the weekend, in which he ultimately called for an impeachment of President Mutharika:
The President has disobeyed the National Assembly and the Judiciary. He wants to be a dictator. People must stop recognising him as President and his administration. These can be done by refusing to pay tax, shunning all government functions as it will be an illegal government and any meetings called by any minister and President where possible, they [the public] must engage in simultaneous public demonstrations to express their anger and frustration.
Kasambara isn’t the first to call Mutharika a dictator. The day Kasambara was freed and rearrested, The Guardian published an article by David Smith about President Mutharika, who refuted comparisons made between him and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Though the interview took place last week, there is an interesting inconsistency in the interview, given the current imprisonment of Kasambara. In the interview, President Mutharika said:
From 2004 until now, there is no single political prisoner in a Malawian jail. Is that consistent with the restriction of democracy in this country?
But can we interpret Kasambara’s jailing as anything but political imprisonment? Just today Salima South MP Uladi Mussa demanded in parliament an answer to whether Malawi was in a state of emergency, citing the rearrest of Kasambara.
Kasambara’s arrest seems to have already created a domino effect for those surrounding him. His lawyer, Wapona Kita, has been summoned to appear in front of the Anti-Corruption Bureau on Monday, where he will be questioned about how he was able to get court bail for his client.
The Kasambara saga has led civil society representatives to pull out of the dialogue with government over the issues raised during the July 20 anti-government protests.
Another interesting twist to the Kasambara case was the use of political homophobia by Government Information Minister Patricia Kaliati. The Kasambara case began with his interception of five men trying to petrol bomb his home. He and his security team managed to detain three of the men, who admitted being sent by the ruling party. In a radio interview, Kaliati claimed Kasambara had beaten the potential petrol bombing suspects for refusing his advances for a sexual encounter, as reported by Nyasa Times and Malawi Democrat.