/ 19 April 2011

British envoy asked to leave Malawi

Britain’s envoy to Malawi has been asked to leave the Southern African country after he was quoted in a local newspaper expressing concern about the president’s intolerance of criticism and about deteriorating human rights, diplomats said on Monday.

A Malawian and a British diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the news, said British high commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet was informed he had 48 hours to leave during a meeting on Monday with Foreign Minister Etta Banda.

Attempts to reach Banda were unsuccessful.

In London, Britain’s Foreign Office was not able to immediately confirm that Cochrane-Dyet had been expelled, but acknowledged a meeting with Banda had taken place.

“The High Commission awaits detailed confirmation of what the foreign minister said at the meeting,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said, on customary condition of anonymity in line with policy. He added that Britain’s High Commission in Malawi was likely to issue a statement on Tuesday.

Malawi’s Weekend Nation recently published a story based on what it says is a cable Cochrane-Dyet sent to London.

“The governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights,” Cochrane-Dyet is quoted as saying.

‘Intolerant of criticism’
Cochrane-Dyet also was quoted as describing President Bingu wa Mutharika as “combative” and saying he “is becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism”, and saying rights activists report a campaign of intimidation through threatening anonymous phone calls.

“They seem genuinely afraid,” Cochrane-Dyet was quoted as saying. “The office of one high profile activist has allegedly been raided and his house broken into. There are unsubstantiated rumours that the ruling party is forming a youth wing modeled on the Young Pioneers used as a tool of repression during the country’s three decade dictatorship.”

Weekend Nation quoted Cochrane-Dyet as saying the Mutharika administration was increasingly growing impatient with the donor community with some ambassador being summoned by the Foreign Minister “for a dressing down, others [including me] have been summoned by the president’s brother for gentler delivery of the same message.”

The governments of Germany, the United States and Norway have also expressed disquiet about the political climate in Malawi.

A $350-million US grant to improve Malawi’s power supply network was delayed for several months until Washington said it had received “strong commitments” from the Malawi government to uphold human rights. The German government decreased aid after Malawi failed to repeal laws criminalising homosexuality, and enacted laws seen as restricting media freedom. _ Sapa-AP