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Malawi Students to File Contempt Charges Against University Council

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika speaks during the Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York, September 20, 2010.

The president of the Malawi Chancellor College Students Union, Patrick Phiri, says his group will file contempt charges against the university council Friday.

The student organization says the council charged with running the school has refused to reopen two campuses of the University of Malawi, despite a recent high court ruling.

Authorities closed them indefinitely more than six months ago, citing violent protests over what students and professors call threats to academic freedom.

In a statement, the university council said it was acting "to protect lives.”

The students are frustrated because the prolonged closure is affecting their studies, said Patrick Phiri, president of the student union.

“After the High Court ruling giving the University Council 21 days to reopen our college fully, to our dismay, until today, the college hasn’t been yet reopened,” said Phiri. “As students, we are in an unfortunate, a sickening situation, because we have already lost a year in our academic calendar.”

Critics have dismissed the student’s lawsuit as a publicity stunt.

Phiri says his group also sought the intervention of President Bingu Wa Mutharika to compel the administration to reopen the university. President Mutharika is chancellor of Malawi Universities.

“Before the court action, we petitioned the president, being the chancellor and being the father of the nation, to help us move us out of this mess. [But] we are still waiting for a response from the president,” said Phiri.

Some analysts say Mr. Mutharika could face contempt charges as chancellor of the university. Others say the president is immune to prosecution under the constitution.

Jai Banda, senior partner at the law firm of Banda, Makiyi, Kanyenda and Associates, argues that President Mutharika could indeed face contempt charges. But Banda expressed doubt that a Malawi court could enforce its ruling.

“In my view I don’t think the president is immune to court orders,” said Banda. “But whether it [would] actually be implemented even if a court were going to grant an order that [President Mutharika] be arrested, I doubt…very much if that [would] be feasible.”

But he adds that even if the court is unable to seek the arrest of Mr. Mutharika, “the fact of the matter is that people will know that laws were broken.”