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Outspoken critic of Malawi's leader jailed

16 February 2012, 13:45

Blantyre - An outspoken opponent of Malawi's president who once served as his attorney general says the administration sent thugs to petrol bomb his law office - and the government critic ended up in jail.

Ralph Kasambara was arrested on Monday, accused of kidnapping and torturing three men he told reporters confessed to his bodyguards that they had been sent after him by the government.

Information Minister Patricia Kaliati denies Kasambara's accusations, and Kasambara denies the kidnapping and torture charges.

Concern that President Bingu wa Mutharika is intolerant of criticism and violating human rights has led to protests and strained relations between Malawi, among the world's poorest countries, and its foreign donors.

At least 19 people were killed by police when anti-government demonstrations last year degenerated into looting.

In the Kasambara case, court clerks who have been striking for higher pay for weeks suspended their strike to allow a bail hearing because lawyers have supported the clerks. On Tuesday, a magistrate ordered Kasambara released. Prison authorities balked at first, saying the order came too late in the day Tuesday. Kasambara was released Wednesday and greeted by hundreds of his supporters, colleagues and journalists outside a Blantyre jail.

Hours later, police arrested him again at his home, saying his bail procedure was flawed. Supporters again gathered at the jail, and police wielded batons to disperse them.

Governance questions

Kasambara's arrest came days after weekly newspapers quoted him criticizing Mutharika.

"Malawians have options. They should ask the president to resign or they should impeach him. He wants to be a dictator," Kasambara was quoted as telling The Weekend Nation.

Mutharika, a former World Bank official, was once heralded by economic analysts and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2009 by voters who embraced his anti-corruption, anti-poverty pledges. But the country's economy has struggled in the last year, and questions about Mutharika's commitment to democracy and human rights became an issue.

Mutharika expelled a British diplomat who had described his as "becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism". Former ruler Britain subsequently indefinitely suspended aid to Malawi, which later withdrew its expulsion order.

The European Union, Germany, Norway and the US have also halted or suspended assistance to Malawi, raising governance questions.


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