Gunfire at Chihana appeal hearing

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The Independent Online
MALAWIAN security forces opened fire on more than 5,000 demonstrators outside the High Court in Blantyre at the end of the appeal hearing for the opposition leader Chakufwa Chihana this week. Tear-gas and several hundred shots - some from automatic weapons - were fired over a 10-minute period, and at least five people were treated for gunshot wounds at two Blantyre hospitals, according to British observers at the appeal who returned from Malawi yesterday.

Mr Chihana, serving two years' hard labour for sedition, was brought handcuffed to the court in an armoured truck from the high-security jail at Mikuyu, near Zomba. He did not address the court.

The presiding judge, Chief Justice Richard Banda, told the court at the end of Monday's hearing that the defence had presented so much new material that he and the two other judges would be unable to deliver their judgment before the end of the month.

The basis of the submission by Mr Chihana's British defence lawyer, Edwin Glasgow QC, was that the conviction on the charge of sedition was sustainable only on the basis of a discredited 1939 colonial decision which had not been followed in any democratic country in the free world. At that moment in Mr Glasgow's submission, observers said, there was a sustained outburst of applause from a packed public gallery.

According to the submission, the sedition laws under which Mr Chihana was convicted are contrary to the Malawian constitution and its own laws, which demand conformity with English common law. The prosecution case was that Mr Chihana had uttered seditious words and imported seditious publications. One of the documents forming the basis for this charge, a speech by Mr Chihana at a human rights conference in Lusaka, Zambia, in March 1992, speaks of 'exploring the prospects for democratic change in Malawi'. Another calls for 'a campaign by non-violent means for an end to one-party rule'.

The defence submission at the appeal concluded that the convictions were wrong in law and should be quashed and that 'the use of 'sedition laws' in respect of material calling for peaceful democratic change is an unacceptably wide application of the law in a modern democratic republic'.

On Tuesday, Young Pioneers of the ruling Malawi Congress Party stormed the polytechnic in Blantyre and beat up the librarian and students reading in the library, saying they had been among demonstrators the previous day, observers in Malawi said yesterday.

Mr Glasgow and his colleague Michael Wood are understood to be acting for Mr Chihana without payment and to have paid their own travel and accommodation expenses. The Malawian government is represented by two British lawyers, John Beveridge QC and Andrew Nitch-Smith, lawyers whose links with Tiny Rowland's Lonrho group have caused concern among members of the British Bar. Mr Rowland is a friend of President Hastings Banda and Lonrho has extensive business interests in Malawi.

(Photograph omitted)