A trial looking into the biggest financial scandal in Malawi's history has begun in the capital, Lilongwe.
At least 68 prominent figures stand accused of stealing funds in what has been dubbed "Cashgate" by the media. It is estimated that more than $100m over a 10-year period has been lost.
A senior Malawian civil servant and two executives on Wednesday became the first of dozens of defendants to go to trial.
"The cases have started and I pray that they'll go fast so that Malawians can finally know what happened," Information Minister Brown Mpinganjira told the AFP news agency. "We have been looking for answers and the answers can be found through the court proceedings."
We have been looking for answers and the answers can be found through the court proceedings.
President Joyce Banda, who has appointed international investigators to probe the allegations, has said that about 30 percent of the country’s budget could have been looted.
So far authorities have tracked $20m in stolen state funds, Mpinganjira said, amid rumours the figure could exceed $100m.
Government officials allegedly used a central computer payment system to transfer money to non-existent firms for supposed services, then deleted the companies' information from the system.
Foreign aid withheld
Donor countries are withholding millions of dollars in financial aid pending the investigation. Western donors provide about 40 percent of the country's annual income.
"People are awaiting the outcome of this case with great intensity, knowing as they do that in the past cases such as this have simply disappeared," said Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna, reporting from Lilongwe.
"People want to know if this case will go through and whether people will be held responsible."
Allegations of the massive looting of government funds surfaced after the shooting of budget director Paul Mphwiyo in September.
Mphwiyo, who survived the attack, had reportedly planned to reveal a corruption ring.
Banda dissolved the cabinet in October and sacked the powerful ministers of justice and finance.
The president, who took office after the death of her predecessor in 2012, faces presidential, parliamentary and local government elections in May.
More arrests in the Cashgate saga are expected when a probe backed by Britain and the European Union is completed, according to Mpinganjira.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies