Rafiq Hajat, Director of the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI), is one of the leading human rights defenders in Malawi where the Government has been seeking to repress protests and silence all critical voices.

Rafiq Hajat has been publicly acccused by President Bingu wa Mutharika of being an enemy of the state and he has been forced to go into hiding. However, in spite of the threats against him he has continued to speak out about human rights violations in Malawi.

On 3 September 2011, at 1 am approximately, a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of the IPI office in the Chichiri area of Blantyre, following which the front room of the building caught fire resulting in extensive damage.

Once considered a country where civil society could express itself freely, Malawi has descended into a spiral of authoritarianism in recent years. The situation deteriorated further in early 2011 when civil society reacted to corruption scandals and high commodity prices with demands for reform and good governance. The Government, mindful of events in North Africa, reacted with force. The authorities made statements inciting violence against human rights defenders and civil society leaders. The President repeatedly called on supporters to fight all those opposing his views or criticising the Government, stating he would “smoke them out”. In reaction to demonstrations, local authorities banned protests in the main cities. Mass protests on 20 and 21 July were violently suppressed by the police and resulted in the death of 19 protesters and injuries to hundreds. The day before, members of the ruling party took to the streets waving machetes, threatening members of the public not to participate in the demonstrations.

Rafiq Hajat, is one of the leading figures of the civil society coalition behind the pro-reform protests and convenor of the Southern Region Demonstration Group. IPI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-religious and non-governmental institution which was formed in 2001 to promote enhanced participation by all Malawians in the processes of political, economic, and social decision-making at all levels, within a fully participatory democratic framework. At the international level, Rafiq Hajat is Chair for the International Alliance on Natural Resources in Africa, a network that is advocating for justice in the use and extraction of Africa`s natural resources and has helped steer the development of the network to a level whereby it is recognised by the AU, NEPAD and the African Commission.

As a result of the threats he has faced Rafiq Hajat has been forced to constantly change where he is staying in order to evade Government supporters who are reported to be seeking him. Virtually all HRDs involved in the pro-reform movement have received serious threats, including phone calls to family members asking for the location of the offices or homes of their HRD relative. This situation has placed great stress on Rafiq Hajat’s family as well as on his health, exacerbating his existing heart condition.

On 25 August, the President of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika had publicly stated that he was ready ‘for war’ with his critics. Human rights defenders in Malawi believe that such hostile statements by government representatives have incited government supporters to target civil society and human rights defenders. Reacting to media queries on the IPI petrol bombing, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba reportedly stated that the Government had received information which led them to believe that NGOs were deliberately burning down their offices in order to destroy evidence of misuse of funding.

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ZIMENE MUMAKONDA

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