Page last updated at 08:14 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

Ex-Malawi leader on theft charges

File pic of Ex-Malawian President Bakili Muluzi
Bakili Muluzi's supporters say the case is politically motivated ahead of polls

Ex-Malawian President Bakili Muluzi has appeared in court accused of stealing $11m (7.7m) in donor money.

Mr Muluzi was charged on 80 counts of allegedly siphoning aid cash into his private account.

The 66-year-old was arrested earlier after turning himself in to the Anti-Corruption Bureau in Blantyre.

Mr Muluzi, who denies any wrongdoing, is to stand in a presidential election in May. The authorities denied claims the case was politically motivated.

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says dozens of riot police surrounded the court in the city centre on Thursday, to stop up to 1,000 Muluzi supporters reaching the building.

It has nothing to do with the presidential campaign
Hetherwick Ntaba
Presidential advisor

He says Mr Muluzi was charged along with his former personal assistant, Liness Whisky, and both were forced to surrender their passports to receive bail.

"This is all political but Dr Muluzi will defend himself," Fahad Assani, a lawyer representing the former president, told our correspondent.

Mr Muluzi, who ruled the poor southern African nation from 1994 to 2004, was first arrested over the allegations in 2006 but the then-director of public prosecutions threw out the charges.

The latest inquiry comes amid fears violence could flare before the forthcoming presidential election.

The former presidents of Mozambique, Joacquim Chissano, and Ghana, John Kufuor, were in Malawi on Wednesday to try to calm tensions.

'Obvious stratagem'

An adviser to the current head of state, Bingu wa Mutharika, denied the charges against Mr Muluzi were politically motivated.

Hetherwick Ntaba told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme: "It has nothing to do with the presidential campaign.

"So what the supporters are telling or are saying has completely no basis whatsoever."

President of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika
Current Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika fell out with Mr Muluzi
But Henry Mvula, Mr Muluzi's aide, earlier told the BBC's Network Africa programme the case was a witch-hunt.

And Malawi political analyst Rafiq Hajat told Network Africa: "If a court case is initiated against a candidate, their candidacy is immediately put into doubt. I think the political stratagem is fairly obvious."

Mr Muluzi, who is leader of the opposition United Democratic Front, plans to stand in May against Mr Mutharika.

He was Mr Muluzi's protege but soon after being elected, the pair fell out and Mr Mutharika formed his own party.

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