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Malawi: Arrests Signal Deteriorating Rights Environment

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The Malawi government’s recent surge of arrests and threats against critics reflects its broader crackdown on free speech and other basic rights. On March 9, 2012, Malawi’s State House, the President’s office, issued a statement warning journalists and human rights activists that those who insulted President Bingu wa Mutharika faced prosecution and up to two years in prison.

(Johannesburg) – The Malawi government’s recent surge of arrests and threats against critics reflects itsbroader crackdown on free speech and other basic rights,Human Rights Watch said today. On March 9, 2012, Malawi’s State House, the President’s office,issued a statement warning journalists and human rights activists that those who insulted President Bingu wa Mutharika faced prosecution and up to two years in prison.

On March 16, police without a warrant arrested John Kapito, the chairman of thegovernment-fundedMalawi Human Rights Commission and a prominent critic of the government’s human rights record in Lilongwe, the capital,accusing him ofpossessing guns and seditious materials. Police conducted an extensive search of Kapito’s home and car, apparently did not find weapons or the materials, but nonetheless charged him with possessing “materials with seditious words,” and undocumented foreign exchange. He was released on bailon the same day.

On March 21, police arrested Atupele Muluzi, a prominent member of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) party and son of former President Bakili Muluzi, and charged him with inciting violence. Three days earlier, police and party supporters engaged in violent clashes at a partyrally in Lilongwe,which Muluzi had been scheduled to address. Local civil society activists believe the charges against Muluzi are politically motivated.

“Arresting government critics is just the latest sign of increasing repression in Malawi,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President Mutharika should take urgent steps to end the harassment and arrests ofpeople seen as opposing the government.”

Kapitohas been threatened frequently bysenior government officials who accuse the Malawi Human Rights Commission of operating outside its jurisdiction. In August 2011, the commission reported on the killing of 19 people by police during July protests throughout the country. The report concluded that the police used excessive force against the protesters, and called on the government to investigate the killings.

Kapito and Muluzi are among several critics of the government, including human rights activists, journalists, and opposition members, who have been targeted by state security forces and supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the past year for criticizing the government on human rights, governance, and the economy. Several human rights activists have been arbitrarily arrested while others have received death threats and been forced to go into hiding.There have been several firebomb attacks by unidentified assailantsat the homes and offices of government critics.

On February 13, police arrested aprominent lawyer, Ralph Kasambara, and five of his security guards in Blantyre, after the guards apprehended three men carrying a petrol bomb at Kasambara’s offices. Police charged Kasambara and his guards with assault. Several days earlier, two national newspapers had published interviews in which Kasambara criticized President Mutharika’s record on human rights and governance, and called for his resignation. While the guards were immediately released on bail, Kasambara was detained for several days before being let out on bail.The three men who attempted the attack were released without charge.

In October 2011, police arrested five civil society activists – Habiba Osman, Billy Mayaya, Brian Nyasulu, Ben Chiza Mkandawire, and Comfort Chiseko – on charges of “holding an illegal demonstration.” They were taking part in a small, peaceful demonstration outside parliament, calling on President Mutharika to hold a referendum, resign, and hold an early election. The activists were released on bail five days later.

In September, unidentified assailants threwpetrol bombsat the homes and offices of several government critics, including the activists Mcdonald Sembereka and Rafiq Hajat, and an opposition politician,Salim Bagus.

Police and ruling party supporters have also been implicated in the intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and beating of journalists attempting to report on political events.On October 11, police summoned and questioned two journalists from theMalawi News, Innocent Chitosi, a deputy editor, Archibald Kasakura,a reporter,andGeorge Kasakula of Weekend Nation, after the two papers published stories about the death of a student activist,Robert Chasowa.

On September 12, police arrested and questioned a journalist, Ernest Mhwayo, for taking pictures of President Mutharika’s farm. Mhwayo was charged with “conduct likely to cause breach of peace” and released on the following day. Several journalists were beaten and detained by police in July as they covered demonstrations throughout the country.

“The Malawi government’s increasing intolerance of any dissent should be strongly condemned byconcerned governments,” Lefkow said.

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