A senior law expert has urged President Bingu wa Mutharika to appoint a coroner on slain Polytechnic student Robert Chasowa saying an inquest conducted by a coroner is a judicial process that commands more public trust and confidence than a presidential commission of inquiry.
Associate law professor at Chancellor College Dr Edge Kanyongolo said the tendency by government to appoint a commission of inquiry whenever there is a mysterious death of a prominent person instead of using a coroner dilutes public trust in the outcome of the inquests.
Following the unexplained slaying of Polytechnic student, Robert Chasowa, President Bingu wa Mutharika promised to appoint a commission of inquiry into the death, while the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) commenced a parallel investigation to look into circumstances that led to the death of the fourth year Mechanical Engineering student activist.
Government is yet to institute an inquiry.
"The thing is whenever there is a presidential commission its terms of reference are always determined by the president unlike that by the coroner who can be a magistrate," Kanyongolo said.
But the acclaimed law lecturer said the setting of any inquest, commission of inquiry or investigation can be challenged if it does not follow the requirements of the law that applies to it.
"There is a difference between the presidential commission of inquiry, that being conducted by MHRC and a coroner's inquest who receives relevant evidence to establish the circumstances under which a sudden or suspicious death occurred," Kanyongolo added.
According to Kanyongolo inquests are conducted based on the Inquests Act (Cap4:02) of the laws of Malawi. On the other hand, presidential commissions of inquiry can cover any matter of public interest and are based on section 89(1) of the Constitution and the Commission of Inquiry Act. The MHRC inquest is mandated by sections 129 and 130 of the Constitution and the MHRC Act (Chapter 3:08), of the Laws of Malawi.
Following previous inquests, the general public has raised many questions regarding the credibility of commissions of inquiry whose findings have either been delayed or questioned, or were never made public.
But apart from raising doubts on the results, the general public has also questioned the credibility of investigators some of whom have been thought to be caught in a conflict of interest.
John Kapito Chairperson of MHRC, the body that is investigating Chasowa's death, confirmed that his organization is indeed an interested party in the Chasowa inquest but clarified that the permission to carry out the investigation was obtained from the court which provided a coroner.
"An inquest process allows interested parties to be involved in the process. In fact, interested parties can conduct investigations and forward their findings to the coroner.
"In our case, it should be noted that it is not MHRC conducting the inquest. All we are doing is carry out an investigation and provide factual information uncovered and give it to the coroner who will conduct the inquiry and come up with the verdict," said Kapito.
Kanyongolo also confirmed public fears that the credibility of presidential commissions of inquiry usually draws questions.
"The credibility of these inquiries tends to be more unpredictable because they are not always conducted in public but also the fact that their members are appointed in the direct discretion of the president."
He also said neutrality can be compromised if a member of the commission of inquiry or MHRC in the Chasowa case has something to gain from the investigation.
"On the basis of what the public knows in this particular inquest, the alleged government involvement in the death remains debatable or unclear.
"On the other hand, MHRC's provision of legal assistance to the family of the deceased would not impede them from conducting unbiased investigation, also considering that it is mandated by law to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations," Kanyongolo said.
President Bingu wa Mutharika in October told the BBC that he would institute a commission of inquiry to investigate how Chasowa was killed which followed a similar announcement from MHRC.
Chasowa was murdered in mysterious circumstances after working hand in hand with police to stop demonstrations that were scheduled to take place on September 17.
Soon afterwards police quoted College of Medicine pathologist Charles Dzamalala as saying that Chasowa had died of head injuries after throwing himself from an upstairs building. Police concluded that he had committed suicide. But Dzamalala contradicted the police statement saying he had not released results of the autopsy he carried out on Chasowa.
But on its part government said it has not at any point discussed the demerits and merits of the two saying this is not the time to start another debate.
"It's not useful now to start this debate. What we know is that commissions of inquiry have done a good job in other countries, why should it be an issue here in Malawi?
"Even if government appoints a coroner today, they will still find something else to talk about, I don't know what they want," said President Bingu wa Mutharika's spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba.