South Africa has issued an arrest warrant for controversial millionaire pastor Shepherd Bushiri, who skipped bail and returned home to Malawi.
On Saturday he told his social media followers that he had left South Africa because he had received death threats.
The preacher, who was on bail and awaiting trial for money laundering and fraud, had previously said he wanted to clear his name.
It is not clear how or when Mr. Bushiri left South Africa.
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Bushiri refused to reveal how he escaped.
But the BBC’s Nomsa Maseko in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, reports that one possibility being considered is that he and his wife Mary were smuggled out by a sophisticated syndicate which specialises in taking stolen cars from South Africa to Malawi.
There have also been suggestions in the South African press that he was smuggled out in Malawi’s presidential jet – something which has been denied by the authorities in both countries.
How has Shepherd Bushiri caused a diplomatic row?
Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera was in South Africa on a state visit last week, and there has been speculation in South Africa that a member of his entourage had aided Mr. Bushiri’s escape.
This has been denied by officials in both Malawi and South Africa, but a diplomatic row is brewing.
Malawi’s foreign minister told the BBC that he thought the South African authorities suspected the Malawians were trying to smuggle out the controversial preacher.
“When we were coming to Malawi leaving South Africa, we were exposed to stringent checks. It is just now that we are beginning to realise that maybe there was a suspicion that we were trying to smuggle Bushiri out of South Africa,” Malawi’s foreign minister Eisenhower Mkaka told the BBC’s Nomsa Maseko on Saturday.
On Monday morning he then complained, very publicly, on Twitter about the seven-hour delay to the president’s journey, which included “vague security reasons” for thorough checks of the presidential plane.
Statement on the delay of His Excellency Dr Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, President of the Republic of Malawis’ departure from the Republic of South Africa @MalawiGovt @GovernmentZA @nomsa_maseko @CyrilRamaphosa @PresidencyZA @LAZARUSCHAKWERA @EisenhowerMkaka pic.twitter.com/oqhRJ3uBlD— Min.Foreign Affairs (@ForeignMalawi) November 16, 2020
He noted that the South African authorities had categorically stated that Mr. Bushiri had not escaped on the presidential plane.
But he described South Africa’s treatment of President Chakwera as “improper”.
Who is Shepherd Bushiri?
Mr. Bushiri has been described as one of the richest religious leaders in Africa.
He claims to have cured people of HIV, made the blind see, changed the fortunes of the impoverished and, on at least one occasion, appeared to walk on air, although none of these claims have been scientifically proven.
He grew up in Mzuzu, a city in northern Malawi and moved to Pretoria in South Africa where he leads his church – the Enlightened Christian Gathering.
He is so popular that he has been known to fill sports stadiums with followers.
But he has also been accused of preying on poor people, desperate to improve their lives, by selling merchandise including “miracle oil”.
The authorities in Botswana shut down his church after it claimed that money could be summoned out of nothing, which contravened financial regulations.
What is he accused of?
Mr. Bushiri is accused of money laundering and fraud, along with his wife and two others.
Crime investigators say the case involves 102 million South Africa rand ($6.6m; £5m).
Might he lose his house in South Africa?
Mr. Bushiri appeared at Pretoria’s Magistrates Court on 21 October to hear the charges and was granted bail on 4 November.
He skipped bail sometime last week, something he described on Saturday as “a tactical withdrawal meant to preserve lives”.
The South African government said on Sunday that it had initiated the extradition process for Malawi to hand him over.
The South African police then issued the warrant for his arrest on Monday and said that if he doesn’t present himself to court before 19 November he will forfeit his residence.
The trial is scheduled for May.
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