Lonrho link to Malawi trial queried

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TWO prominent British lawyers with links to Tiny Rowland's Lonrho group have been hired by the government of Malawi, an African dictatorship where the company has extensive business interests, to prosecute the leader of the political opposition.

Members of the Bar Council are expressing concern about the case, and the council's human rights committee has questioned the association between Lonrho and the two lawyers, John Beveridge QC and Andrew Nitch- Smith, a partner at solicitors Denton Hall Burgin and Warrens.

Both lawyers specialise in commercial work but took on the criminal prosecution of Chakufwa Chihana, chairman of Malawi's Alliance for Democracy, who was jailed for two years in December for sedition.

Lonrho's chief executive, Tiny Rowland, is a close friend of Dr Hastings Banda, Malawi's life president whose human rights record has been attacked by Amnesty International. The Bar Council has asked Edwin Glasgow QC and Michael Wood to represent Mr Chihana, whose appeal is being heard tomorrow.

Mr Nitch-Smith has frequently acted for Lonrho and has instructed Mr Beveridge on the company's behalf several times. But there is no evidence that Lonrho is backing the prosecution, and last week its deputy chairman, Paul Spicer, said it had nothing to do with the company.

Paul Harris, chairman of the Bar Council's human rights committee, said it was unusual that the government had hired English lawyers to prosecute. A report by the committee says Malawi's minister of justice said that Dr Banda demanded the appointment of British prosecutors to show that the trial was impartial.

Mr Harris said it was surprising that lawyers with mainly commercial backgrounds were chosen to conduct its most important prosecution.

Mr Nitch-Smith said he could appreciate why eyebrows had been raised but denied that Lonrho had any direct link with the case.

Mr Beveridge was in Malawi and could not be contacted, though a colleague said he did have experience in criminal work.

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