New British High Commissioner to Malawi Michael Nevin has said while there is need to have a “docking point” for the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) within the administration, the independence of the elections body is of paramount importance.

“The independence of the Mec is vital as is the perception of a credible election,” he said in an exclusive interview.

In her first cabinet shake-up since assuming office in April, President Joyce Banda removed Vice-President Khumbo Kachali as Health minister but placed a number of institutions, including Mec, under his office.

This drew fire from several quarters, including opposition parties, lawyers and Mec itself. The critics fear that with the vice-president as minister in charge of Mec, independence of the elections body will be greatly compromised.

New Mec chairman Maxon Mbendera said while Section 76 (4) of the Constitution gives the commission independence, Section 96 (1b) of the same supreme law of the land gives a minister powers to direct, supervise and coordinate activities under his or her ministry.

Nevin urged stakeholders in elections in Malawi “to decide whether the current arrangements” fulfil Mec’s goals.

On the controversial debate on homosexuality, Nevin said Britain maintains its position that fundamental rights, including those of minorities, should be upheld.

“We are not promoting or forcing anyone to adopt a particular lifestyle. But we do not agree that someone should be put in prison simply because they are gay. Human rights are universal and should not be determined by sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said.

He said it is up to Malawians to decide how to handle this issue “within its human rights responsibilities”. He said Britain welcomes the debate on the divisive subject that is currently on in Malawi.

He nonetheless emphasised that London does not tie its aid or relationship with its development partners to one issue as some quarters fear.

“The debate should be conducted on its own merits, not whether there will be more or less money from donors,” he said.

Malawi has some of the world’s harshest homophobic laws. The country gained worldwide notoriety when in December 2009 the first openly gay couple was arrested after a Christmas public engagement.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were charged under buggery and unnatural acts or sex against the order of nature laws. They were subsequently sentenced to what the then presiding magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-usiwa described as a “scary sentence” of 14 years imprisonment with hard labour in May 2011.

It had to take United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to secure a grudging presidential pardon after his meeting in Lilongwe with the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

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