BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Lawyers in major cities throughout Malawi took to the streets Wednesday, protesting what they call government interference in the judiciary for nullifying last May's elections.
The demonstrations were in reaction to the government's decision to force the country's chief justice, Andrew Nyirenda, to go on leave pending his retirement.
John Suzi Banda, former president of the Malawi Law Society, told VOA the lawyers are concerned about constant attacks on the judiciary from the executive arm.
"They have been calling the chief justice and judges names, calling them compromised and all manner of things," Banda said. "And this is coming from no less a person than the state president himself. We have come here to tell the executives that they should put their hands off."
In a statement last week, the government said the chief justice has accumulated more than 500 leave days, which would take him to his retirement time.
Banda says the move violates the separation of powers, one of the key pillars of the country's constitutional democracy that makes the three arms of government — legislature, executive and judiciary — independent of each other.
Leave days is an issue for the judiciary, not for the executives, Banda said.
"There is no reason [for] the secretary to the cabinet to be coming on these grounds, and to start pointing at judicial officers saying, 'You go home on leave.' And then, where is independence?" Banda added.
The relationship between the judiciary and President Peter Mutharika soured after the courts nullified last year's elections in which Mutharika won a second term.
And at a political rally Wednesday, Mutharika made a fresh accusation against the judiciary for "conniving with opposition parties" to topple his government.
Rafiq Hajat, executive director of the Institute for Policy Interaction think tank, supports the lawyers' argument.
"The executive should retract that statement and restore the status quo to what it was before this whole fiasco," Hajat said. "Because if we accept actions like this without objection, we are accepting dictatorship."
The Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association, the Commonwealth Legal Association, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, and Judges for Judges have issued a statement asking Malawi's executive arm to desist from interfering in the affairs of the judiciary.
But the government is refusing to budge, saying this is not the first time that chief justices have gone on leave pending retirement after accumulating leave days.
In a statement Tuesday, government spokesperson Mark Botoman said the Mutharika government sees nothing wrong in asking the incumbent chief justice to go on leave until his retirement.
Malawi's High Court has granted two injunctions against the government's decision.