What Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) had organised as a peaceful demonstration in Lilongwe yesterday degenerated into violence and looting that saw police arresting 20 suspects.
In an interview on Tuesday evening, National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said some of those arrested had diverted from the designated march route to commit the suspected criminal acts.
He said seven suspects were arrested outside the route in connection with vandalism of property, especially near Reserve Bank of Malawi and Area 15 shops.
The other suspects are said to have allegedly stolen and looted private property at business centres, including in Mchesi Township.
In view of the demonstrations, which HRDC is organising to force Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah to resign for allegedly presiding over a flawed electoral process on May 21 2019, many established shops, businesses and banks had ring-fenced their property with police and Malawi Defence Force (MDF) officers in the vicinity.
By 9am yesterday, thousands of protesters, including some from outside Lilongwe City, gathered peacefully at Lilongwe Community Ground, the designated starting point.
However, the protesters were later seen engaged in running battles with the police just five minutes after setting out for Capital Hill through Mchesi Township, Lingadzi, Area 47, Area 18 Roundabout and past Parliament Building.
Few unarmed police officers were initially seen at the venue before protests began, but these were chased by protesters. Some of them were overheard saying they did not want the police because they did not protect HRDC official Billy Mayaya when he was being attacked by governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) youth cadets during last Wednesday’s demonstrations in Blantyre.
Soon after the MDF lead vehicles turned into Mchesi, police officers who had camped at Lilongwe CCAP premises and nearby police houses fired teargas, apparently to disperse the demonstrators.
In the commotion that ensued, HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo, his security team and other marchers were seen running side by side with protesters.
The situation calmed down when MDF soldiers later took control of the proceedings after HRDC leaders pleaded for their intervention. The protesters then regrouped right at Police Mobile Service C Company base where soldiers parked their armoured vehicles during the intervention process.
In his address to the crowd, HRDC vice-chairperson Gift Trapence condemned the police officers for firing teargas at peaceful protesters.
He said the police conduct was against the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal ruling Justice of Appeal Lovemore Chikopa delivered on Monday that Malawians should not be barred from demonstrating.
He said: “It is sad that police officers decided to fire teargas at us when we are demonstrating peacefully and unarmed. We know that they have been sent to do this. But we want to tell them that if they thought we are going to stop demonstrating because of teargas, they are just deceiving themselves.”
Mtambo has since demanded that police officers who fired teargas at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital premises in Blantyre last week and those who locked up Justin Phiri in Karonga without giving him access to medical treatment, until he died in Mzuzu, should be arrested and prosecuted.
In an interview, University of Livingstonia political commentator George Phiri faulted the police for intending to disperse protesters, saying they violated the exercise of people’s constitutional right to freely march.