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George Chaponda deserves a fair trial

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Events surrounding the arrest and subsequent release, on bail, of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Vice President for the South and former Agriculture minister, George Chaponda, have exposed Malawians’ general aversion to corruption.

Since Chaponda, hitherto an heir apparent, was dropped from President Peter Mutharika’s Cabinet in February this year, Malawians have been calling for his head. Chaponda incensed Malawians with his seemingly insensitive manner of handling suspicion that he corruptly benefited from an infamous maize import deal, dubbed Maizegate.

At the peak of the accusations, Chaponda showed no remorse by dressing down a joint parliamentary inquiry as a waste of public resources. Mutharika added salt to the injury that Malawians suffered by declaring, a day before results of a presidential commission of inquiry, that Chaponda was a victim of a hate campaign.

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Chaponda then made matters worse when he told a public rally, in his constituency, that he was surprised that no one was arresting him, saying he was more than prepared to be arrested.

Now it is unwise to crack jokes when people are mourning. Innocent jokes such as the weather pattern “going multiparty” (being unpredictable) can attract the chief’s anger.

Malawians had to bottle up their emotions over glaring government’s indifference to issues of corruption just because they had no way to vent their anger.

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That opportunity availed itself to the public on Wednesday when Chaponda and his accomplice, Rashid Tayub, of Transglobe Produce Export, were arrested and interrogated by the Anti- Corruption Bureau (ACB) in Blantyre.

Ordinary Malawians braved heat of the sun to wait for Chaponda to emerge from the interrogation room. They demanded that Chaponda be handed over to them for instant justice. Seeing that their demand was a far-fetched dream, they hurled missiles at an ACB vehicle carrying Chaponda to Blantyre Police Station.

Now that is where the problem begins because the anger shows that the citizenry has no confidence in the country’s justice system. As the crowd waited for Chaponda at the ACB, others took to the social media, peddling lies that Chaponda had feigned illness and had been airlifted to South Africa for medical attention. They maliciously claimed that the purported illness was just one way to further delay justice in the case.

Others even called the arrest and interrogation a window dressing by the government through the ACB. As you read this entry, there are some Malawians who do not believe that Chaponda spent a night in dark, dusty and cold rooms of the make shift Blantyre Police Station. They still believe this is government propaganda to placate Malawians who are angry at its inaction on corruption.

But this should make the President and his team worried. It is a dangerous situation to have citizens who have no faith in whatever their government does or utters. The levels of distrust have reached dizzying heights because, even when sitting among grave diggers in the village, one hears them dismissing any idle talk or blue lies as “imeneyo ndi ndale chabe” (that is mere political rhetoric). As it is, Malawians equate the country’s politics to lies.

Then you have Chaponda’s side, which also perpetrated violence during his interrogation and court appearance.

Some of his lawyers denied journalists a chance to take his pictures. One respected lawyer asked the media as to what they wanted at the ACB offices and who had invited them. He then ordered the media never to take any pictures. The lawyer also made Chaponda behave like a statue by telling him never to turn around because there were cameras behind him. That explains why most of the pictures showed Chaponda’s back only as he stood still for hours for fear of the flash-happy paparazzi.

The lawyers’ act was unfortunate as it impeded on the Constitutional right of Malawians to access information.

At the court the right to access information was further curtailed by DPP cadets who insulted the media using unprintable words just because they wanted to take pictures of Chaponda.

All this is counterproductive because Chaponda and his accomplices remain suspects. The Malawi Constitution presumes them innocent until proven otherwise by a competent court of law.

For members of the public to demand mob justice is criminal just as it is for his lawyers and supporters to stop the media from taking his pictures or indecently assaulting the scribes.

No-one should be allowed to usurp the role of the judiciary or law enforcers by either convicting Chaponda in the court of public opinion or indeed attempting to keep Malawians in the dark about the case.

It should be in Chaponda’s interest for transparency to prevail in his case. If his team is seen to be hiding something, any acquittal would just strengthen the public’s position that Chaponda was already guilty even before he committed the suspected crime and that the case was just a smoke screen.

Members of the public must also know that, if they continue to stone Chaponda, the court or the police can stop them from following the case just to ensure a fair trial.

We settled for the rule of law, some 23 years ago, and we should not be observing that rule only when it suits us. We have State organs that can competently make Chaponda accountable. Chaponda also has a Constitutional right to justice. It is, therefore, very crucial that we allow the wheels of justice to roll on, without undue delays, until everyone is satisfied. For now, let Chaponda have a fair trial.

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