Malawian marijuana runs rife

A senior Malawian magistrate was among 20 people arrested in the lakeshore district of Salima for alleged marijuana trafficking in a week beset with events surrounding the drug.

Malawi police service deputy spokesman, Kelvin Maigwa, confirmed Magistrate Silvester Chimoto of Nkhunga Second Magistrate Court in Nkhota Kota was arrested as he tried to transport four 50 kilogram bags of marijuana to Blantyre, the business capital.

Maigwa said Chimoto, 54, was travelling in an open truck together with 20 other passengers. "The magistrate had hidden the four bags in larger bags to disguise them as maize," he said.

"Officers became suspicious at the ease with which the bags were off-loaded from the truck."

Second Grade Magistrate Chimoto has since been charged with possession of dangerous drugs without authorisation.

Others arrested with Chimoto, including a driver and his assistant, are being held in custody as state witnesses. The Chitedze Research Station in Lilongwe, the Malawi capital certified on Tuesday morning that the four bags contained premium grade marijuana.

Chimoto pleaded not guilty to the charge when he appeared in court Tuesday afternoon.

In a related development, a 24 year-old Malawian man belonging to a Rastafarian sect drowned in Lilongwe River after smoking Indian hemp on Monday in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, while he and fellow Rastafarians conducted prayers along the riverbank.

Malawi Police Service deputy spokesman, Kelvin Maigwa, identified the drowning victim as Robertson Banda, a resident of Kaliyeka Township in Lilongwe.

"The deceased together with his Rastafarian colleagues went to the Lilongwe River bank for prayers and in due course the deceased is said to have smoked too much hemp before stripping himself naked and diving into the river," said Maigwa.

He said that when Banda plunged into the river he was immediately swept away by the running waters and disappeared. His friends tried in vain to save him.

Maigwa said after the matter was reported to police a group of people went to the river and mounted a search the man for over 24 hours. Banda's body was later found floating downstream on Tuesday and taken to Lilongwe Central Hospital for autopsy. Post-mortem results indicated the man died from drowning.

Meanwhile, police on the outskirts of the commercial city of Blantyre in Southern Malawi last Saturday seized 29 bags of Indian hemp weighing 90 kilograms each. Three Rastafarian men, named as 27-year-old Zinenani Gama, 30-year-old Dumbo Banda, and 23-year-old Ganizani Tamaza were detained despite attempts to bribe arresting officers with 30,000 Malawi Kwacha (US $330).

The men appeared at the Soche Magistrate Court in the commercial city of Blantyre on Monday and granted bail at 15,000 Malawi Kwacha (US$165) each. The case will be heard on June 30.