Press release March 20, 2020
Malawi: Authorities Launch Political Purges, Attacks on Rights Activists, Ahead of Planned Election Rerun
Human rights defenders fall under attack in the time of the global coronavirus pandemic.
In response to attacks on and threats against human rights defenders and government institutions in Malawi, Freedom House issued the following statement:
“With the world focused on combatting the global pandemic of Covid-19, the president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, is quietly consolidating power and removing challenges to his authority by threatening and arbitrarily detaining human rights defenders, and by purging the army and other government institutions of rights-respecting officials,” said Tiseke Kasambala, chief of party for Freedom House’s Advancing Rights in Southern Africa program. “These moves do not bode well for democracy in Malawi, and have a chilling effect on the rights environment ahead of the presidential election rerun scheduled for May 19.”
On March 8, police arrested and detained two leaders of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), McDonald Sembereka and Gift Trapence, and accused them of inciting people to break the law after they called on citizens to march to the State House to pressure the president to assent to electoral reform laws ahead of the May elections. Police issued an arrest warrant for another member of the HRDC, Timothy Mtambo, who turned himself in. Police later released all three on bail under stringent conditions. The president and several senior members of the government and the president’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have issued statements threatening leaders of the HRDC. Some members now fear for their lives.
Furthermore, on March 17, the president dismissed the commander of the Malawi Defence Force (MDF), General Vincent Nundwe, and the deputy commander, Lieutenant General Clement Namangale—moves believed to be politically motivated. The MDF has been applauded by activists for peacefully quelling violence and protecting demonstrators from the police, who have been widely implicated in acts of violence and intimidation against human rights activists and opposition supporters. On the same day, the president refused to ratify a raft of bills passed by parliament that were necessary in order for fresh elections to be conducted.
“The president’s attempts to circumvent the rule of law are worrisome,” said Kasambala. “It is time for the regional body, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), to condemn these acts and to call on the president to respect state institutions and end his attacks on human rights defenders.”
President Mutharika’s actions come in the aftermath of a landmark Constitutional Court ruling in February that nullified the results of the country’s 2019 presidential election, which President Mutharika had narrowly won. Citing serious irregularities, the court called for a fresh election to be held on May 19, 2020. The president now faces stiff competition from a coalition of opposition parties, including the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Transformation Movement (UTM). The process and results of the 2019 general elections triggered months of protests by the HRDC and the opposition. Ruling-party supporters and the police have repeatedly threatened and violently attacked members of the HRDC since.