IT WAS a small mercy that Orton Chirwa was allowed a final meeting with his wife Vera just a month before his death on Tuesday. The two were held in solitary confinement in separate wings of Zomba prison in southern Malawi. They had been imprisoned for nearly 11 years - Africa's longest serving prisoners of conscience.
That meeting was their first in eight years and only took place because a delegation of British lawyers was visiting. The lawyers said afterwards that Orton was virtually deaf and blind with untreated cataracts.
Orton Chirwa was Malawi's first black barrister. A founder of the Nyasaland African Congress, he was one of a group of young nationalist leaders who in 1958 took the fateful decision to invite Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, then living in Ghana, to return to Malawi. Chirwa and his colleagues felt that the experience and gravitas of an old man - Banda was already about 60 - would impress their African constituency.
In later years Banda would boast how he had single-handedly smashed the 'stupid' Central African Federation. Orton Chirwa and others of his generation were written out of history.
In 1959 the Federal Government banned the NAC and arrested many of its leaders, including Banda. As the senior leader at liberty Orton Chirwa set up the Malawi Congress Party and became its first president. The following year, after Banda's release, he stood down and handed him the leadership.
At independence in 1964 Orton Chirwa became Attorney General, but fell out with Banda over the slow pace of African advancement in the civil service. Banda sacked Chirwa and three other ministers, driving them into exile.
Chirwa settled in Tanzania, where he taught and practised law. His new political party, the Malawi Freedom Movement, appears to have had little active support inside Malawi which was now a one-party state with Banda president for life.
On Christmas Eve 1981, Orton, Vera and their son Fumbani were visiting Zambia when they were abducted by Malawian security officials. What exactly happened that night remains a mystery. The Chirwas maintained that they were visiting a sick relative. Perhaps they were tricked into going to the border area. The lurid official description of the now elderly Orton 'infiltrating' the country with two members of his family was clearly nonsense.
Two years later Orton and Vera were put on trial for treason. Malawi's legal system had changed since he was Attorney General. The Chirwas were tried before a 'traditional' court, with judges directly answerable to Banda. There was no defence counsel and they were not allowed to call witnesses. The procedural irregularities were bizarre: thus the police officer in charge of the investigation doubled as an 'independent' handwriting expert.
They were found guilty - of course - and sentenced to death. In 1984, after many appeals from governments and colleagues from their student days in London, Banda commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.
Life imprisonment proved to be a further sentence of death. The Chirwas were denied contact with each other and the outside world. Last year Orton tried to smuggle letters out to Tanzania. They were intercepted and he was punished with two days' squatting in handcuffs and leg-irons, without lavatory facilities.
When Malawian scholars are allowed to write their country's history, Orton Chirwa's role can be judged fairly. Meanwhile he remains a potent symbol of the struggle for human dignity and freedom of conscience.
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