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Malawi: Biometric passport production could halt, staff arrested ‘as human bait’

Malawi: Biometric passport production could halt, staff arrested ‘as human bait’

The situation facing Techno Brain in Malawi appears to be deteriorating. In further developments since the firm’s passport contract cancellation by the Minister for Homeland Security, Techno Brain warns that passport services are likely to halt as staff have been prevented from accessing infrastructure. The UAE-based company says a member of staff is being illegally held under house arrest in Lilongwe, claiming he is being used as “human bait.”

News emerged in Malawian media in mid-December 2021 that Techno Brain’s biometric passport system management and production contract with the Department for Immigration and Citizenship Services (DICS) had been cancelled by Malawi’s Minister of Homeland Security, Richard Chimwendo Banda. Local media reported allegations of corruption, which Techno Brain denies. It is pursuing legal action against the authorities.

Biometric Update reported the news within a roundup of passport stories that week which led to a series of correspondence with Techno Brain’s PR company. The digital systems firm has shared its concerns.

Passport system shutdown warning

Techno Brain was awarded a contract in 2019 to create new passport infrastructure, develop capacity, train DICS staff and supply consumables and finished biometric passports. The firm shared its statement on their operations following the cancellation:

“Techno Brain wishes to inform the public ahead of time that, as it is currently prohibited by the Government from accessing its infrastructure, it is regrettably unable to conduct scheduled maintenance procedures that are upcoming on 20 January 2022.

“Failure to perform these procedures is expected to result in disruption and potentially a full system shut down.”

Biometric Update tried to contact the Passport Service but has not received a reply and calls go unanswered.

Staff ‘under house arrest’

Prakash Naidu, an expatriate engineer who works for Techno Brain in Malawi, has been held under house arrest in Lilongwe since 8 January 2022, according to the firm. The firm told Biometric Update that no warrant authorizing entry was presented by the authorities and Naidu is being presented from leaving.

The firm does not believe that there are any grounds for their member of staff to be held due to immigration reasons.

“The Malawi Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) denies that Mr Naidu’s movements have been restricted and claims instead that he is being monitored in case he decides to flee the jurisdiction without handing over keys and a password for the Data Centre for the E-Passport under the parties’ relevant agreement,” said the firm in an email.

Biometric Update has contacted the office of the DPP and the Indian Consulate but has not received a reply.

A petition for a writ of habeas corpus by the firm on Naidu’s behalf has been rejected as Techno Brain has already filed for a judicial review.

“In respect of the judicial review proceedings, the Attorney General (AG) was not able to articulate any legitimate basis for apprehending Mr Naidu,” Techno Brain told us.

“Instead, the AG appears to have to suggested that Mr Prakash is detained in connection with a private dispute (in which the Government has played no part) and that his detention is an effort by the Department of Immigration to ‘enforce compliance in its capacity as a party to a contract with commercial capacity.’

“We find this argument to be quite incredible, as it confirms that the Government has no basis to detain Mr Prakash and that his detention is therefore illegal.”

Biometric Update has attempted to contact the Attorney General’s Chambers and Minister for Homeland Security but has not received a reply.

Contract cancellation

Malawian media covered a press conference on the cancellation of Techno Brain’s contract, given by both the Minister for Homeland Security and the Attorney General, Chakaka Nyirenda. The latter is reported by the Nyasa Times to have said “This contract was signed by mistake as it did not follow proper procedures” and that the government arrived at the decision following thorough research which found the company was in breach of contract.

Techno Brain disputes this.

“Techno Brain believes that the basis of the cancellation is that the Malawi Government does not want to pay for the services Techno Brain has already provided, or remain to be provided under the agreement,” the firm told Biometric Update.

“Since the start of the Contract period, Techno Brain has performed its contractual obligations in a consistent and timely manner, whereas DICS has struggled to meet its contractual deadlines. In particular, DICS has routinely failed to honour its contractual payment obligations, which it has in writing freely admitted in recent months.”

Techno Brain says it expected to continue discussing payment plan options to resolve the issue of the DICS’s non-payment. “Thus, it came as a surprise to Techno Brain that in early December 2021, DICS sent Techno Brain a purported termination notice. Techno Brain believes therefore that the obvious purpose of the termination notice was for DICS to evade responsibility for sums owed to Techno Brain and otherwise fulfil its contractual obligations. Under the terms of the Contract, DICS disregarded the detailed procedure for termination,” the firm told us in a statement.

Techno Brain rejected the termination notice and says it suggested further negotiations in good faith: “DICS did not respond timely to Techno Brain’s suggestion to negotiate and instead apprehended Mr [Naidu] unlawfully.”

This has led the firm to conclude “It seems that DICS’s tactic is to use Mr [Naidu] as ‘human bait’ to gain leverage over Techno Brain and extort unduly favourable negotiation terms.”

Further updates will be provided as they become available.

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