An Investigation by the Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) reveals that Yunhua Lin has been allowed to leave prison, spend days at home, conduct his business and go on shopping sprees in the company of prison guards. He wears plain clothes and is not handcuffed.

While it is unclear who sanctioned this, the police have promised to investigate on the back of PIJ questions and the “very serious” allegations. But, this commitment by the police might be too late. The PIJ can also reveal that the notorious gang leader has lodged a court appeal to be let off serving the rest of his sentence. 

This appeal will be heard in Malawi’s Supreme Court on 29 May.  

In September 2021, Lin, the leader of a notorious Chinese gang illegally trading in wildlife products from Malawi and other countries in southern Africa, was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was convicted of trading in rhino horn, conspiracy and money laundering. 

The PIJ can now show Lin is not treated like other prisoners. Prison officials help him to travel in and out of prison. Aside from being able to go home for periods of time, when Lin is outside the prison facility, he is left to walk around without a prison uniform or handcuffs, despite his conviction and unlike other inmates who do get escorted out sometimes but under very specific circumstances.

Surveillance captured Lin on various activities outside prison. These includes visits to his house, his farm in Lumbadzi on the outskirts of the capital city, in shopping malls and at a garage. He is always escorted by two or three prison guards in an official prison service vehicle. There is no evidence of Lin being at a hospital or in court for these outings, which under normal circumstances, would be the only time a prisoner is escorted out of prison.  

The surveillance PIJ has seen show show he leaves prison in an official Malawi Prison Services vehicle but has also been allowed to switch to his own private vehicle once he has left the prison.

The evidence of Lin roaming in and out of prison to conduct business transactions raises questions about whether the wildlife smuggling syndicate he heads up is operating from jail, out of the public eye, as Lin pretends to serve his 14-year sentence. 

Who is Lin?

Lin is the head of the Lin-Zhang wildlife syndicate that arrived in Malawi from Fujian province, China in 2014. He set up a merchandise shop in Lilongwe but this turned out to be a front for more sinister activities, including the trafficking of wildlife products. As later exposed by the PIJ  in 2022, this business grew to include the illegal export of precious metals, including gold, and coal and later legal exports that were made possible by suspected bribery. 

While Lin was sentenced to 14 years in prison for trading in rhino horn, conspiracy, and money laundering, other gang members include Lin Hui Xin (aka Huixin Lin), Lin’s daughter.  She was arrested in Lilongwe and charged with money laundering and registering anon-existent company known as Moni International Company Limited. 

Lin’s wife, Zhang Qinhua (aka Huaquin Zhang), was arrested in July 2021 and was sentenced alongside eight other gang members to a total of 56 years in prison for illegal trade in wildlife products, including protected species like pangolins, rhino horn, elephant ivory and hippo teeth. 

Incarceration - Lin style

  • 12 August 2022: Lin was at his farm under prison escort.
  • 18 February 2023: Lin was seen out of prison. He went to a supermarket.
  • 30 March 2023: Lin was seen outside prison. He was taken to his residence in Area 9 with three prison officers and a driver.
  • 31 March 2023: Lin went to his house in Area 9again, where he changed from his prison uniform into regular clothes and then visited Shoprite at Gateway Mall.
  • 12 April 2023: Lin went out of prison in a prison vehicle, wearing civilian clothes, accompanied three prison guards. They took Lin to a garage in Biwi, Lilongwe, called Singapore GT Investments, before proceeding to Lin’s residence in Area 9.
  • 27 April 2023: Lin came out of prison and went tohis house in Area 9, accompanied by three prison guards. Lin stayed there for a short time and then came out and went back to Maula Prison.
In footage obtained by PIJ, Lin is wearing a purple shirt and a baseball cap. The name of the garage is visible in the footage and photos.

PIJ’s investigations raise many questions, including questions about how many times he has come and gone from prison and who in the prison and political system sanctioned this. Since he is free to leave prison to attend to his private matters, does this mean he is free to continue with the business of smuggling? 

Meanwhile, Lin has lodged an appeal to be let off the remainder of his sentence.  According to court documents that PIJ has accessed, Supreme Court judge Lovemore Chikopa will hear the appeal on 29 May at 10:00hrs.

Aubrey Kabisala, a security lecturer at Mzuzu University who, among others, teaches correctional services, confirms that the law only allows inmates on parole to serve sentences at home with supervision and medical attention. Court appearances are the only other times convicted inmates are allowed outside prison. 

“The principle of incarceration, why you are putting someone in isolation, the incarceration itself suspends certain rights of a convict. Every other person has a right to do any other business, but if you are convicted, you cannot be doing business or going to the bank to transact,” said Kabisala.

Natural Resources Justice Network (NRJN) Chairperson Kossamu Munthali was asked to comment on the PIJ’s findings. He described the situation as “sad”, “serious' ' and “shocking” and added that the actions were a “big joke” and a “serious mockery of justice” and called for heads to roll. He also warned that the country’s criminal system cannot afford to merely engage in a talk show to repair its image and public confidence.

“When you spend your meagre resources as a country to support a justice system and still see such interesting trends—where offenders are treated like this. This is quite serious. Any Malawian of goodwill wouldn’t want to hear such stories. 

He added: “It’s really like the prisons are for the poor. We have already been robbed of precious minerals and resources; those responsible are left scot-free. It bears the question of whether we have the right people in these offices. These are serious revelations. We need the officers responsible to be disciplined. It can’t be a talk show again. This is so sad.” 

The Prison Services response

On Wednesday, the Public Relations Office at Maula Prison invited PIJ to an in-person.

At the Maula Prison meeting, officials acknowledged to PIJ that Lin’s outings, particularly visits to his house, farm and business premises, if proven true, were illegal. 

The senior prison management also confirmed that it is illegal for an inmate to put on civilian clothes while outside prison except when attending court hearings. Prison management also stated that if Lin had mislead the prison about  the places he was going to outside the prison, he was committing a crime.

Prison officials at the meeting with PIJ, including the Officer-in-Charge who was only identified as Mr Mwale, his deputy, Station Officer Peter Kalawe as well as officers from the prison public relations office, said they would investigate the allegations presented by PIJ. They did, however, claim that Lin was allowed outside on an unspecified “few occasions” to attend medical treatment at Kamuzu Central Hospital on referral from the health facility at the prison and on one occasion to visit the bank. 

Mwale explained that  officers assigned to Lin on such outings committed an offence if they allowed him to divert from his stated reason for exiting the prison to attend to other matters.

“We now fully get the picture of what has been happening, and we will brief the headquarters who will decide on what could be done to our officers. But we need proof since these are just allegations at this stage,” said Mwale.   

The national prison headquarters pledged an investigation in a written statement to the PIJ. 

It reads: “Here at the Head Office, it's the first time we hear such news. Inmates have the right to go to the hospital and conduct transactions at the bank under the supervision of the officers assigned by the Officer-in-Charge as long as due process is followed. These are very serious allegations, and we are not taking them lightly. We have instituted an internal investigation to get to the bottom of what is actually happening. Should we establish that the allegations are true, then serious action will be taken against all that are involved.”   

Malawi’s Minister of Homeland Security, Ken Zikhale Ng’oma, could not comment.

Main photo: A prison vehicle leaves the home ofYunhua Lin, a convicted illegal wildlife trader, after Lin is pictured on yetanother home visit. 

This story was produced by the Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ-Malawi), and syndicated by the IJ Hub on behalf of its member centre network in Southern Africa