Picture: Peter Mutharika. (World Economic Forum, Flickr)
An Indian investor in Malawi has accused agents of the Malawian state – including police and tax officials – of abusing their power to harass him during his bitter private wrangle with a former associate over ownership of a multibillion-kwacha agribusiness.
Chandrashekar More alleges that after the dispute erupted, he was arrested on frivolous charges and tortured in police custody.
And in a leaked communication, his India-based lawyer, Neelkanth Aher, claims Malawian officials confessed to him that “the orders had come from above”.
The lawyer says Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika, took “a keen interest in the finer details of the matter” but “failed to take any action, reinforcing the belief that the president and/or his connected people are involved in grabbing the properties of foreign investors who are investing in Malawi”.
More says his estranged partner, Zuneth Sattar, threatened to use his close relationship with Mutharika against him and made him read a letter in which the president saluted Sattar as “Zuneth my son” and signed off as “your father”.
Mutharika’s press secretary, Mgeme Kalilani, said the president “has no business connection of any kind” with Sattar. “The president knows Mr Zuneth Sattar just like he knows many other people in Malawi and elsewhere.”
More’s allegations of abuse at the hands of the police and the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) “if true are regrettable”, Kalilani said, but “they were certainly done without the president’s knowledge or involvement”.
More alleges that the MRA ordered his arrest for not filing a tax return but failed to inform him of the details of the case, including his tax liabilities.
He says the police did not record a statement from him after his arrest, and that no formal charges were ever laid.
Sattar’s lawyer, Manuel Theu, declined to comment on the allegations, citing current litigation in the High Court of Malawi.
“I do not have a mandate to touch upon the issues for fear of jeopardising or compromising my client’s case as submitted in court,” Theu wrote.
“… the most unfair manner”
In a letter to India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, in February this year, More said the trouble started in 2013 when he launched Tamanna Solvex Africa and brought in Sattar and his brother, Ahmed, as 50% partners.
This was on the understanding that Sattar would invest $1.5-million in the soya processing operation. The full amount, More says, was never forthcoming.
Despite this he alleges that the Sattar brothers barred him from the factory, removed him as a bank signatory without his consent, and used threats that they were well connected with Mutharika, the police and the immigration authorities, to induce him to surrender his shares.
More alleges that when he lodged formal complaints with the Inspector General of Police Lexton Kachama, the Indian High Commission in Malawi, the registrar general of companies “and other government authorities”, police called him to a meeting on September 10 last year which they “chaired and steered in the most unfair manner”.
When this intervention failed, More said a police officer, Norman Phiri, informed him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He also received a call from a tax official who told him to hand himself over to the authorities “as soon as possible”.
To get him to drop his complaints, he says he was “tortured mentally and physically throughout the time I was under illegal detention. I was not informed about my case nor did I have access to any papers or information in relation to my case.”
“… tremendous stress …”
More also alleges that Tamanna Solvex’s accountant, Padma Kumar, unlawfully seized his and his family’s passports, and only released them after being shown a court order and checking with officer Phiri on the phone.
Kumar denied this, claiming More gave him the passports as a guarantee that he would not leave Malawi “before the issue is concluded”.
More says that he and his family then fled to India, where he was admitted to hospital for “the tremendous stress I had to go through in Malawi”.
In December last year his lawyer, Aher, visited Malawi on a fact-finding mission, when he met Suzgo Lungu of the foreign affairs ministry, Attorney-General Kalekini Kaphane, police inspector-general Kachama, and officials of the Registrar-General’s office and the MRA.
“It was confirmed from various sources official and unofficial that there is no case of any nature whatsoever against me”, More wrote.
He told the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi that Tamanna Solvex has now suspended operations, leaving 100 workers without income. He has approached the High Court to have his ownership of the company confirmed and Sattar’s alleged takeover declared illegal.
“… viciously motivated”
In a leaked email to the police in April this year, Aher complains that “the state agencies are being used arbitrarily according to [Sattar’s] whims”.
More’s lawyer also alleges that Attorney-General Kaphale acknowledged “a possibility [that] an arm of government was wrongly used or abused or was led into doing so”.
Aher says the charges against More were “so baseless and viciously motivated” that officials at the MRA headquarters in Blantyre burst out laughing when he confronted them and asked: “Are you sure this is why your client was arrested by the MRA and tortured under arrest?”
He complains that the investigation of More’s allegations against the police was handed to an officer called Ngongonda, but “no response has been received from the IG’s office in spite of repeated reminders”.
Lilongwe police spokesperson Kingsley Dandaula said there was no record of an officer named Norman Phiri on the staff database, but confirmed More’s arrest. He gave no further details.
“We have a Professional Standards Unit with the Malawi Police Service that handles complaints against police misconduct. He should have filed a complaint,” Dandaula said.