LILONGWE, May 2 (Reuters) Malawi's vice president was denied bail today on charges he plotted to assassinate President Bingu wa Mutharika, with a judge declaring he remained too much of a security risk to set free.
A lawyer for Vice President Cassim Chilumpha, who was arrested last Friday, asked the court in the capital Lilongwe to free his client on the grounds that under Malawi law both the president and vice president enjoy immunity from prosecution and arrest.
But Judge Chifundo Kachale refused, saying the question of immunity had not been decided by the appeals court.
''Even if this court was competent to release the vice president on bail I would find it very difficult to do that because the offenses are very serious. Doing that would, in the view of the court, not be in the interest of security,'' Kachale said.
He then formally charged Chilumpha with both conpiring to assasinate the president and to overthrow the government, handing the case to the country's High Court for trial.
Chilumpha's laywer Fahad Assani said he would launch an immediate appeal tomorrow.
Chilumpha's arrest marked a dramatic turn in his political stand-off with wa Mutharika, who attempted to have him sacked as vice president earlier this year but was blocked by the country's high court.
Yesterday, the United Democratic Front (UDF) party -- which wa Mutharika abandoned but to which Chilumpha and former state President Bakili Muluzi still belong -- said his arrest could be ordered only by parliament.
''The arrest procedure should have proceeded with a public announcement of the incident and then a constitutional process of impeaching the vice president should have been invoked,'' the UDF said in a statement.
Mutharika won office under the UDF flag but ditched the party in a power struggle with predecessor Muluzi after launching an anti-graft drive which won praise from the foreign aid donors who play a key econonic role in the impoverished southern African country.
Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Henry Phoya told Reuters last week that Chilumpha ordered a prominent businessman to hire a professional hitman to kill the president.
Chilumpha's lawyers call the charges a political witch-hunt.
Phoya said Chilumpha told Yusuf Matumula -- who was also arrested -- to go to an unnamed country to hire an assassin. The unnamed hitman would be a key witness in the case, he said.
Police also arrested three opposition leaders in connection with an alleged plan to overthrow the government and said more arrests were imminent.
The arrests marked the latest twist in a crisis that has seen the opposition calling for the president to be impeached and foreign donors warning that aid to the country of 11 million people could be in danger if wa Mutharika were ousted.
Chilumpha, a lawyer, is a Muslim and commands strong support among the country's 3 million Muslims, a powerful voting bloc.
REUTERS SI RN2255