The second round of discussions between representatives of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and the Attorney General (AG)’s office aimed at ensuring peaceful demonstrations will take place at Kamuzu Barracks in Lilongwe today.
Both HRDC leader Timothy Mtambo and Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs spokesperson Pilirani Masanjala confirmed the change of venue from Crossroads Hotel in the capital city to Malawi Defence Force (MDF) headquarters. The move follows a demand from HRDC members who felt insecure after a suspected bomb scare at Crossroads Hotel when the two parties met last Friday.
Said Mtambo: “You may recall that the last time we met at Crossroads [Hotel], people wanted to bomb us, and so we demanded that the venue should be changed.
“We feel [safer] at the barracks. Actually, the ideal place should have been at Area 30 Police Headquarters, but we don’t trust them, so we can’t go there.”
A lawyer from the AG’s office NeversonChisiza said in a separate interview the meeting expects to start at 10am.
He said: “We are meeting at MDF headquarters from 10am. We are continuing from where we stopped, so yes I can confirm the meeting is on tomorrow [today].”
The two are meeting following a Supreme Court moratorium that ordered a stop to anti-Jane Ansah demonstrations for 14 days within which the two sides should discuss ways of dealing with violence during the protests.
HRDC lawyer Khwima Mchizi said in a telephone interview they also want the media to be allowed in the meeting.
“We suggested the media should be welcome to cover. It is an issue of national importance, we will make sure that it happens,” he said.
Mtambo said the media are essential for the meetings as they will update Malawians on every detail, arguing the matter is of public interest and ought to be made public by the media.
However, besides the change of venue, Mtambo kept a tight lid on what else was on contained in their wish list, insisting the demands were already sent to the AGs office.
On his part, Masanjala, while confirming venue for the meeting, said the media will be allowed to cover the event, but insisted that the two parties will have to agree to allow them into the meeting or not.
“That was a demand from HRDC. We exchanged wish lists and members of the media have been invited. On whether they will be inside the meeting hall depends on what will be agreed upon by both parties,” he said.
While both parties have kept their wish lists under wraps, a source privy to the issue who spoke on condition of anonymity said among others, the AG’s office is concerned with the need to disperse protesters after demonstrations.
Said the source: “The AGs office is demanding that convenors of demonstrations must hire lorries to ferry people off the streets after demonstrations as part of dispersing them so that they don’t wreak havoc.
“Another issue is that they want one martial for every 50 protesters. So, you can see that if you have one million protesters, HRDC may need 20 000 marshalls. That does not sound realistic.”
The Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal order last Tuesday followed efforts by State machinery to stop the demonstrations, which HRDC challenged, saying the demonstrations are a constitutional right.
Section 38 of the Republican Constitution guarantees that every person shall have the right to assemble and demonstrate with others peacefully and unarmed.
This is the second time the AG and HRDC teams are meeting following the Supreme Court moratorium.
Previously, scheduled meetings between the two parties failed to take place twice—first on August 15 when Mtambo’s house in Lilongwe was petrol-bombed in the wee hours, and then on August 21, when the meeting ended within five minutes after the HRDC asked for the withdrawal of an interlocutory application by Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA).
MRA had earlier applied to the High Court for an injunction to restrict HRDC planned demonstrations to outside its premises at the country’s borders and airports.
In his August 27 ruling, Justice Lovemore Chikopa said time should be given within which the parties can negotiate while respecting the suspension. He also said care should be taken so that the moratorium does not turn into a backdoor ban.
Chikopa said that to give negotiations the best chance of success, there is a need for both parties to ensure that senior members attend, to make decisions there and then. He also warned against prejudice during the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Chancellor College-based political analyst Ernest Thindwa has said the change of venue reveals the level of mistrust between government and HRDC.
He said: “The fact that they have settled for military premises is a sign of lack of trust in the police on the part of HRDC and the confidence they have in the army. I am skeptical about concerned parties reaching an agreement if one is to read into messages coming from the government and HRDC. There seems to be no common ground as either side claims its position is non-negotiable.”
Since May 27 this year when the MEC declared President Peter Mutharika winner of the May 21 presidential race with 1 940 740 votes, representing 38.8 percent, HRDC has been holding regular demonstrations which, in some cases, have been marred by looting and violence.
Results MEC announced put MCP presidential candidate Lazarus Chakwera on second position with 1 781 740 votes, representing 35.41 percent while his UTM Party counterpart SaulosChilima came a distant third with 1 018 369 votes, representing 20.24 percent, ahead of four other aspirants.
The HRDC want Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson Jane Ansah to resign for allegedly presiding over flawed May 21 Tripartite Elections.