"I expected that to happen to me, but I figured I might as well die for a good cause rather than live under a repressive regime," said Chihana, now considered the likely candidate of the opposition party in Malawi's first multiparty elections, scheduled for next spring.
At a gathering last night to celebrate Chihana's release this summer, about 30 members of the Philadelphia chapter of Amnesty International listened intently as Chihana described the political change underway in his Southeast African homeland.
He attributed his release to the work of Amnesty International members and others who pressured the Malawian government on his behalf. "I owe my life to all of you," he said. "You have made my life secure and given me a chance to see democracy in my country."
Chihana, who was freed in June after his second imprisonment, is the leader of the Alliance for Democracy, which won the right to have multiparty elections after 27 years of one-party rule under President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
Chihana's leadership of the alliance, the main opposition group to Banda's rule, makes him the most likely opposition candidate.
For Phyllis Grady, a 10-year member of the local Amnesty International group, Chihana's appearance was a rare opportunity. "It's exciting," she said. "This is the first time I have met a prisoner I supported."
Marilyn Cartwright recalled a Bulgarian prisoner the group adopted. It was a frustrating experience. "We wrote letter after letter and got no indication on how the person was doing."
Amnesty International members "adopt" prisoners throughout the world and try to gain their release through pressure. Using a dossier on each prisoner adopted, members write letters and send telegrams to heads of state calling for the prisoner's release.
They rely on an underground network set up by Amnesty International to supply the details of the prisoner's health conditions and any developments regarding their imprisonment.
Members of the Philadelphia group said they started on Chihana's case in April 1992, joining the Washington chapter in working for his freedom.
Chihana's first jail term was for seven years, beginning in 1977. Five of those years were in solitary confinement. He was sentenced to a two-year term after his arrest in December 1992.
Chihana accused Banda, the president, of killing political opponents, looting the national treasury and running Malawi as a personal fiefdom for 27 years.
With democratic elections scheduled for 1994, he said, "democracy is irreversible now in Malawi. We are going to have a new Malawi, and no one can stop the change."
"What makes meeting Chihana special is knowing that we fought for his freedom and now he may go back to lead the country as its new president," said Amnesty member Scott Landvatter.
Chihana's freedom had been sought by members of Amnesty International as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Association.
Amnesty International staff and members said his release was a testimony to the power people have when they lobby governments for the cause of human rights.