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Arrest of terror suspects sparks religious animosity

Religious tensions are brewing in the country following the arrest and subsequent abduction to Cuba of five suspects linked to Osama bin Laden s al Qaeda network.
Hobbs Gama

On 23 June the Malawi intelligence officers aided by the Us Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rounded up in the middle of the night five people alleged to be members of Osama Bin Laden's network.

Lawyer, Shabir Latif for Saudi national Fahad al Bahli, Ibrahim Habacci from Turkey, Arif Ulassam also a Turkish, Muhamad Srdar Issa from Sudan and Khalifa Abdi Hassan a Kenyan applied for their release and trial in the High Court to prove them guilty.

Although the High Court in Blantyre issued an order to the state restraining it from deporting the alleged suspects and grant them bail, the American embassy chartered an Air Malawi plane and whisked their abductees to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where the CIA is keeping other al Qaeda suspects.

Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Fahd Assani admitted the state was helpless as America had seized suspects from other parts of the world.

The law fraternity blamed government and the American agents for disrespecting the law and violating the rights to bail for the suspects while the state chose to keep a tight lip on the matter.

Edge Kanyongola, a senior law lecture at the University of Malawi was concerned that the legal or extradition process was not followed in repatriating the suspects who had to be heard. "Malawi was not under a state of emergency that people could be arrested because there were other rights that were supposed to be respected," charged Kanyongola.

The country's Muslim community went berserk with the deportation and caused extensive damage to property: Five Christian churches were destroyed in the southern region of Mangochi -- the Islamic stronghold; the district offices of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party were burnt. A Catholic priest escaped death while several vehicles were damaged at the premises of the Save the Children Fund (USA).

Reports of demonstrations were heard in the central region district of Kasungu while two officials of the association who had travelled to quell violence were seriously injured and admitted at hospital.

The Muslims accuse president Muluzi, the DPP and Inspector of police Joseph Iron, themselves Muslims for failing to protect their brother suspects. Muslims claim were targeted for what they claim collaboration with America to discredit their religion in the name of fighting terrorism.

Save the Children Fund official, Storm Malcolm an American wondered whether the fund would operate effectively in Mangochi district in the event of the hostility. "We do not have religious or political affiliations. I'm surprised why these people cannot understand this," bemoaned Malcolm.

President Muluzi has since instructed the army and the police to apprehend all culprits after police had made more than 20 arrests. He echoed the Muslim association's assertion for their support to the fight against terrorism and any acts of violence.

"I will not tolerate any group of people to plunge the country into anarchy in the name of religious freedoms. I'm a Muslim but cannot condone terrorism," Muluzi cautioned.

Meanwhile the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC) and the Catholic church which comprises 8 million of the country's 12 million people has demanded compensation to all victims of the violence but implored Christians to co-exists peacefully with the Muslim faithful.

They issued simultaneous statements condemning the state controlled media -- the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and Television Malawi (TVM) for giving a total blackout on the al Qaeda abduction and the violence but only report whenever Muslims speak against the Christians.

"Why did some Muslims have to take arms on behalf of the five al Qaeda suspects who are not Malawian nationals and on an issue that is not immediately religious," queries the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP).

The Catholic Church noted that certain sections of the Muslim community were taking advantage of their close ethnic or religious connections with the ruling elite to take the law in their own hands despite Malawi being a predominantly Christian community.

Opposition parties in Malawi together with civil society organisations have always accused Muluzi of harbouring ambitions to Islamise Malawi, the speculation that became rife with Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi's visit.

Libya is currently constructing a 300-bed referral hospital in the populous commercial capital of Blantyre, and just donated 4,000 metric tonnes of relief maize with promises to assist develop the country's agriculture to ensure food security.

In 1998 local newspapers reported about secret visits by al Qaeda members who were offered red-carpet treatment. Shyley Kondowe, former executive director of the defunct Malawi Institute for Democratic and Economic Affairs (MIDEA) who was quoted in the press about the al Qaeda connections earned the wrath of state agents who threatened his safety. Kondowe is currently in exile in South Africa.

Christian churches have now launched a campaign sensitising the electorate to vote for a leader who will respect their doctrines: Political pundits say it is meant to exclude Muslims from leadership to check Islamisation scheme.

As Muluzi is the current chairman of the Union of Muslims Council for Eastern, Central and southern Africa, a revolving two years term, Christians fear he could be used to Islamise the region as he is the only Muslim head of state in southern Africa, a charge which he strongly refutes at every political rally.

A senior editor at the state media who refused to be named said the issue that irked Moslems was not the al Qaeda repatriation but was political. He said since Muluzi lost his bid to influence parliament to change the republican constitution to stand for another term -- Muslims were not happy for lost favours. "Since Muluzi came to power Muslims have enjoyed opportunities for businesses, senior positions in the public service and parastatals and even scholarships," he observed.

This confirmed a petition by a group of catholic faithful in Blantyre to their bishops to remove all Muslim students and teachers in Christian institutions. The Catholic institutions admit students from other religions while it was only Muslim students that got places at their institutions which they claimed was unfair. However the Catholic clergy has not yet responded to the proposal.

Early this month, the Muslims petitioned the office of the president and cabinet to bring back the al Qaeda suspects for trial and guarantee their safety, threatening they will discredit the current government if their interests were not met.

In the petition they also vowed not to participate in the next year s general elections. Most of the anger is vented on president George Bush of America whom condemn for imposing his thinking on poor countries.

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