Malawi: New president announces probe into death

By Raphael Tenthani

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 12:35 p.m. MDT

BLANTYRE, Malawi — An investigation has been opened into the 2011 death of an activist who had criticized Malawi's late president, his successor said Tuesday, taking one of several steps since being sworn in three days ago that mark a sharp departure from past leadership.

President Joyce Banda also announced Tuesday that she is intent on repairing relations with this impoverished country's foreign donors, and that she has fired the minister of information and the head of state broadcasting. A day after Banda took over, she replaced the police chief, Peter Mukhito, who had been closely linked to crackdowns on anti-government protesters under President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died April 5.

Mutharika, whose funeral will be held on April 23, had been accused of trampling on human rights and mishandling the economy in Malawi. Rights activists have welcomed Banda's succession.

In speaking Tuesday of the death of 25-year-old activist Robert Chasowa, Banda said: "I am a mother, and I spent days imagining how my fellow mother felt on the death of her son. People should not just go about murdering people anyhow and get away with it."

Chasowa was found dead on a pavement at a Blantyre university campus. He had been very critical of the Mutharika administration. Mukhito, then the police chief, told reporters Chasowa killed himself, and police released two suicide notes. But relatives and friends said Chasowa was not suicidal and that the handwriting on the notes was not his.

Under pressure from the public, the police released an autopsy report that stated Chasowa died after a "a fall from a high place." But the pathologist police quoted denied writing such a report, and said instead that Chasowa died after being hit on the back of the head by a blunt object and that there was no sign he had fallen.

Lottie Dzonzi, the new police chief, said Tuesday that Chasowa's death will be thoroughly investigated.

At a news conference Tuesday, Banda said she was working on normalizing relations with donors. She said she has received calls from Britain's Africa Minister Henry Bellingham and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and spoken with International Monetary Fund officials.

Last year, Mutharika expelled Britain's High Commissioner to Malawi after the envoy was quoted in a local newspaper as expressing concern that the president was increasingly intolerant of criticism and human rights were under attack. Britain, a former ruler of Malawi, then indefinitely suspended aid to Malawi, which in the end invited the envoy back.

Last month, a U.S. aid agency that rewards good governance suspended $350 million worth of assistance to Malawi.

The IMF describes its program with Malawi as "off-track." Mutharika had ignored IMF advice to devalue the country's currency.

"There are certain administrative decisions that cannot wait," Banda said at her news conference Tuesday about the dismissal of Information Minister Patricia Kaliati, Malawi Broadcasting Corp. chief executive Bright Malopa and police chief Mukhito. She did not elaborate.

At a news conference Friday, Kaliata had suggested Banda could not become president. Malopa was a trusted ally of Mutharika.

The Malawi government only confirmed Mutharika's death on Saturday, two days after he died and a day after it was announced by doctors. The delay in announcing Mutharika's death and allowing Banda to step in led to speculation politicians were squabbling over succession.

Banda had clashed with Mutharika and been expelled from his party. But she remained vice president, and under the constitution took over to complete Mutharika's term, due to end in early 2014.

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