A Malawi court released LGBTI rights activists Gift Trapence and MacDonald Sembeleka on bail Friday, three days after their arrest on fraud charges connected to a now-resolved funding dispute with a United Nations agency.
UNAIDS, the U.N.’s anti-AIDS agency, said that its financial disgreement with Mango Network, a Malawian human rights coalition, has been settled and should not be used as the basis for criminal charges.
It demanded the unconditional release of two Mango Network members — Gift Trapence, the leader of the country’s main LGBTI rights organization, and the Rev. Macdonald Sembereka, a prominent Anglican priest, anti-AIDS activist, and executive director of network.
The government, however, seeks to use the UNAIDS statement against them, stating that it “reveals that the pair has made a commitment to repay the money – which can be construed as an admission of their wrongdoing.”
The arrests came as Trapence and Sembereka worked with the local Human Rights Defenders Coalition to continue nationwide protests alleging that Malawi’s May 21 election was fraudulent. Sembereka is a member of that coalition and Trapence is its co-chairperson.
In its public statement, the Malawi government said it “would like to reject claims by some civil society commentators that it has a hand in the arrests of Mr. Gift Trapence and Mr. MacDonald Sembereka. These claims are untrue and are being advanced to fuel a false narrative which portrays Government as persecuting human rights defenders in the country.’
What UNAIDS calls a resolved issue the Malawi government calls embezzlement of more than 7 million Malawian kwacha (about U.S. $561,000). The two organizations made these conflicting statements:
“Malawi government: “The confirmation by the UN agency of embezzlement of funds by the two suspects effectively exonerates Government from these claims [that the men were arrested for political reasons].”
UNAIDS: “UNAIDS and the Mango Network have amicably reached a resolution over the issue.”
The financial dispute had involved UNAIDS payments to Mango Network for a planned AIDS-prevention workshop at Mkango Lodge in Blantyre for LGBTI people and sex workers. That workshop never happened.
Speaking at a press briefing at the HRDC Offices in Lilongwe, Vice Chairperson for HRDC Gift Trapence said his arrest has reinvigorated the coalition.
“We will continue to fight for justice. They are not going to win and suppress this justice,” he explained.
Trapence who was arrested for K7 million fraud on Tuesday and released on bail on Friday refused to comment on the case saying it is in court. The activist was arrested together with HRDC member Macdonald Sembereka.
Trapence revealed that that HRDC members have been receiving threats from people who say they will torch the activists’ houses.
He however stated that the HRDC will continue with plans to demonstrate two days a week until [Malawi Electoral Commission Chairperson Jane] Ansah resigns.
The coalition therefore encouraged people to join the protests in large numbers on Tuesdays and Fridays.
HRDC wants Ansah to resign saying she mismanaged the 2019 presidential elections in which President Peter Mutharika was declared winner.