Malawi court grants bail to ex-ministers held for coup plot

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 14, 2013 12:13 PM

LILONGWE (Reuters) - Four former Malawian cabinet ministers and other ex-officials arrested this week on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika last year were freed on bail on Thursday, lawyers said.

Judge Ivy Kamanga at the High Court in the capital Lilongwe granted bail for the 11 detainees, who included the late Mutharika's younger brother, Peter.

They were taken into custody on Monday, accused by an official inquiry of trying to prevent then vice-president Joyce Banda from assuming the presidency, as stipulated in the constitution, after the surprise death of Mutharika in April.

Banda took over the impoverished southern African nation from Mutharika, who spent his last years in office cracking down on opponents and squabbling with foreign ambassadors.

Judge Kamanga instructed the 11 accused men to report to police each fortnight for three months, and also issued a gag order preventing them from speaking publicly about the case.

Their arrests triggered clashes outside the court on Tuesday between their supporters and police.

"We are satisfied with the ruling so far," Kalekeni Kamphale, a lawyer for the 11, told Reuters after the ruling.

The United States and other western donors suspended aid to Malawi in 2011 after police shot and killed at least 20 protesters against Mutharika's rule. Most aid has since resumed.

Banda, who had fallen out of favor with Mutharika by the time of his death, set up an inquiry into the confusing circumstances surrounding the incident.

Its findings, revealed last week, showed Mutharika died of a heart attack on his way to hospital in Lilongwe on April 5, and not on April 7 in South Africa, as originally claimed by the government and Mutharika's family.

The report also revealed that Peter Mutharika, who was then foreign minister, and former finance minister Goodall Gondwe had attempted to convince the army to take over and stop Banda from ascending to power.

(Reporting by Mabvuto Banda; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)