11 July 2019

Malawi: UN 'Dismisses' Trapence, Sembereka Case - Analyst Says Arrest Is 'Scare Tactic' By Malawi Govt

The United Nations (UN) Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) has said there is no need for any legal action against two human rights activists Gift Trapence and Rev MacDonald Sembereka in a K7.4 million 'purported fraud' case, crashing the state case against the two.

Trapence: In custody Sembereka: Remanded at Maula Prison

Police arrested Trapence, vice-chairperson of Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) who organised the recent demonstrations against the outcome of the May 21 Tripartite Elections, and Sembereka for alleged fraud.

But a statement from UN says it regrets 'unnecessarily involving the authorities in Malawi in its outstanding issue with the Mango Network' and called for the release of the two, effectively ending the case against the two activists.

"UNAIDS and MANGO Network have amicably reached a resolution over the issue. UNAIDS has not engaged in any legal action and believes there is no need for any legal action. UNAIDS respectfully requests the immediate release of the two members of the Mango Network, Mr. Gift Trapence and Mr. Macdonald Sembereka, from police custody," reads the statement in part.

The state charged Trapence and Sembereka on issues bordering on a March 2017 transaction of about K7.4 million from UNAIDS for a workshop which allegedly did not take place.

However, analysts believe the arrest of the two was government tactic to scare them off after organizing nationwide demonstrations to force beleaguered Malawi electoral Commission (Mec) Chairperson Jane Ansah to resign from her position for failure to handle the just ended may 21 tripartite elections.

Reacting to the statement form UNAIDS, legal commentators and governance expert said this means that the case against the two has 'fallen off'.

"The state was banking on some evidence from UNAIDS and the organization says it is not interested to take the legal route and has called for the release of the two, this means the case cannot go ahead unless the state wants to charge the two with other charges other than those emanating from UNAIDS. Their continued incarceration is now against the law and they should be released immediately," said a private practice lawyer .

Governance commentator Mankhumbo Munthali said the UN statement clearly confirms that the arrest was "politically motivated" in order to silence the two who have been in fore front organising the demonstrations demanding Ansah resignation.

"This also confirms why at the Court we didn't have any representation from UN Family and that the Police even admitted that they came to Court without evidence. In other words, the Police lied that it was UN that complained to them to effect the arrest on the two and further the Police arrested the two without evidence," said Munthali.

He said while it is always important for Police to investigate allegations of criminality, it makes one wonder why the law enforcers did not act on such matters in 2017 the time when the alleged crime is said to have happened -that is according to Police testimony in Court.

"Why had the Police have to wait until the two led national wide demonstrations challenging MEC in order to act on the alleged issue? Why not act then?"

However, Munthali pointed out that the UN statement simply confirms that the two mismanaged the funds and that the UN had reached an amicable resolution with the two to pay back the money.

"In other words, this was a closed chapter from the UN side. While it is a fact that the UN statement may on one hand affect the moral integrity of the two by confirming they were involved in the wrong acts, on the other it also shows how the Malawi Police service is highly politicised by the ruling elite in order to fight critics of the regime. This partly shows why there is now dwindling public trust in Police as clearly evident in the recent demos."

In court lawyer Khumbo Soko wondered why the State proceeded to effect arrest of the two activist without having any evidence.

Soko said this after police prosecutor Moja Phiri asked for 15-day remand for Trapence and Sembereka to allow conclusion of investigations.

He accused the State's argument as both casual and baseless, arguing that it is wrong to accuse a person without evidence.

Soko said it is "strange" that the State allege of forged documents "but they don't have such forged documents."

Insiders from the United Nations family have confided in Nyasa Times that UNAIDS Representative Therese Poirier (originally from Rwanda) compromised the neutrality of the UN Office when she involved authorities that the two were operating an organisation called Mango which is not registered which got them arrested.

Insiders said Poirier is very close to the leadership of the current administration and promised the authorities to have the two activists arrested by implicating them in a purported money scam at UN AIDs.

According to the UN Charter and Staff Members Code of Conduct, the UN is expected to be apolitical, neutral and impartial.

"UN staff members cannot testify in local courts as they are covered by the Privileges and Immunities Act," said the source.

The arrest of Trapence and Sembereka comes barely days after President Peter Mutharika, in his Independence Anniversary Celebrations speech on July 6, issued a veiled threat to his detractors whom he accused of plotting to overthrow his administration through illegal means.

Trapence is among Mutharika's fierce critics and an advocate of human rights, governance and minority rights.

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