Over the past few days, a Weekend Nation crew has been piecing together complaints from people who say they were beaten up, raped and vandalised in many ways by uniformed police officers in and around Msundwe, Mpingu and M’bwatalika areas on the outskirts of Lilongwe. The complaints are based on a vicious reprisal attack on the people after some protesters had brutally killed Superintendent Usumani Imedi of the Malawi Police Mobile Service on October 8.
An angry mob of the protesters stoned Imedi to death as he led police officers in bringing law and order by repelling the violent protesters and removing stones and logs which they used to block traffic on the busy Lilongwe-Mchinji Road. The protesters took the action mainly to prevent governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters from attending President Peter Mutharika’s rally at Kamuzu Institute for Sports early on October 8.
A week later, some victims were still afraid to be interviewed by the media. But others were forthcoming and showed us some evidence of some of the physical and psychological pain. We captured some of the trail of damage.
In summary, the critical issues our interviews unearthed include:
· That the main vicious Police onslaught against the people happened on the night of October 8, hours after late Superintendent Imedi had been killed.
· That so vicious was the October 8 reprisal, including sweeping arrests of suspected men and boys, that the men and boys dared not sleep in their homes for at least five nights after fleeing to distant graveyards, gardens and other hideouts.
· That the people noticed that many of the Police were in uniform but acted crudely by exhibiting criminal traits like robbery, battery and sexual harassment, including raping women and girls.
· That the attackers are referred to as the dreaded Cadets, some of whom had unkempt beards, hair and dreadlocks. The victim insist that the normal Police officers should explain how the ‘devils’ wore the full Police uniform and were working in cahoots with the ‘normal’ looking Police officers who were more civil as they were trying to find out who participated in murdering the Police officer.
· That, compared to their colleagues in and around Mpingwe, the residents of Mpingu were hit much harder in the reprisals.
Some residents of Mpingu, Msundwe and M’bwatalika in Lilongwe say the police officers who brutalised them need to face the law urgently because their recent savage attacks in the areas targeted innocent women and children.
The people say the uniformed police officers who invade their areas acted like savages and terrorists who came to destroy and instill fear in the vulnerable people.
They say the onslaught on the three trading centres began with the firing of teargas and beating up whoever they found in the areas.
Tamara Isaac, from Mpingu Trading Centre, is still shocked after witnessing the torching of his boss’ car on her watch.
“We all run for our dear lives when we heard the police were coming from Msundwe. They fired teargas all over the place and people fled to the dambo area because here, at the trading centre, there was too much teargas. But my friend and I chose to remain in the shop, partly to ensure the safety of my boss’ car outside.
“The police came to us, asked how much money we had and when I told them that I only had K7 000, they were angry. They locked us in the house, from outside, and said they proceeded to burn the car that was outside; when we came out, it was too late to extinguish the fire,” she lamented.
Another business man and a head teacher at M’bwatalika Community Day Secondary School Jim Msukwa said he is shocked and traumatized that his timber-selling business, worth K7.5 million, was set ablaze by the police.
“I was at school when this was happening. My landlord called to tell be the sad news that the police had set ablaze my timber at a roadside market. I had just bought it from savings I made over the past five years.
“As you know, I am a civil servant so I hoped to make handsome profits from the business. But alas, all that money is gone, just like that: what kind of police does that? I don’t have trust in them anymore,” he angrily declared.
The police officers also descended on Mvuu Village, in Traditional Authority M’bwatalika’s area, where they did not only assault women but also beat up under-aged children and tear-gassed an old man.
In Mvuu Village, two women were brutality beaten and stripped naked despite one being in her menses. The men found there were not spared, as they were arrested and were told they would be told later their charges at the police station.
22-year-old Emily Weluzani said she was coming from piece work (ganyu) at the trading centre, around lunch hour, when she and her friend were accosted by furious-looking police officers.
“We were severely beaten by three police officers, who were all in uniform. They descended on us when they noted that the village was empty because the people had fled.
“They began the onslaught by asking me about my husband’s whereabouts and when I said I did not know, they started beating my friend and I. They left temporarily but they came back and dragged us outside where they ordered us to take off our clothes; they inserted fingers into my private parts, while my friend was spared that ordel because she was menstruating,” Weluzani stated as she broke into tears.
She said they were later made them lie down on the ground, where they stamped on them, describing the rough treatment as ‘payment’ for killing a police officer, “But what startled me was that police officers are always clean-shaven, but these ones had beards and some even in dreadlocks,” she added.
Andrew Kadzamira, from the same village, said he knew of the days’s earlier events of a demonstration and a killed police officer while he had been bundled into a police cell later that day.
“I was with friends drinking beer around lunch hour when, suddenly, three police officers appeared and angrily asked why we were still in the village while our friends had run away. Before we could answer, they grabbed us and I saw one police officer fishing out a panga knife from his coat; I was hacked in the head and leg, allegedly for killing a police officer,” he added.
Other victims of the police brutality included two under-aged children who were whipped by police officers, in their bid to make the children reveal where their father was hiding.
Betrina Chibwe told Weekend Nation that about three police officers approached her and asked where her husband was. When she responded that he could already have been in police hands, they started beating her.
“They later descended on my nine-year-old son, whom they whipped as they asked him where his father was. Then they turned to also my six-year-old daughter, whipping her; the children cried uncontrollably and ended up with swollen legs and arms,” she said.
Group Village Headman Mvuu said the abuse and violence people were subjected to in the area had never happened before.
He said: “If those who came here were really police officers, and showed such savagery, then the police should not be surprised why we have lost trust in them much more now after they acted as terrorists.
“How can law enforcers burn a car with impunity, steal money in homes and shops? They even smashed people’s homes, assaulted and raped women: what sort of police does that?”
The traditional leader confirmed that for a week, most men and boys fled and abandoned their homes for fear of arrests and more beatings by the police. “This is really bad and am speechless. We have lost trust in the police,” he stressed.
In the running battles between the police and the protesters, 44 people from Msundwe, Mb’watalika and Mpingu were arrested. All of them later appeared in court, with four charged with murder and are soon to appear before court, while 39 have been granted bail and the other is a minor to be tried in a juvenile court later.
Meanwhile, pro-bono lawyer Sylvester Ayuba James and friends have taken note of the alleged human rights abuses the communities, suspects and accused were subjected to, saying he is gathering evidence against the State.
“We have embarked on a process of gathering information from specific individuals who were victimised by police in Msundwe and surrounding areas. We have to assess which cases are pursuable in court to find a remedy of how to follow them up.
“There are cases of assault, battering, and sexual assault. But since we are in the process of gathering information, it is difficult to say how long it will take. But it is my wish that within three weeks, this should be done,” he said.
The NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN) has expressed its worry over the alleged cases of human rights abuse by the police. The body has taken exception over how women and girls in the said areas were harasses and abused and it has since called for an action from authorities.
In a statement, the NGO-GCN released on Wednesday and signed by NGO-GCN chairperson Barbara Banda and NGO-GCN national coordinator Joseph Njala, the situation is heartbreaking they have called on the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), Mutharika and the head of the police in Malawi to take action.
“NGO-GCN is deeply disheartened by allegations of rape, defilement and torture of innocent women and girls in and around Msundwe, M’bwatalika and Mpingu trading centres. The Network is disturbed with reports that some of the police officers, as dispatched to the areas on Wednesday, October 9, 2019, raped women, defiled self-boarding girl students, tortured people and looted private property,”
They asked the President to institute thorough investigations that will punish all culprits, adding that the police and MHRC should investigate the case and ensure that the law applies to everyone.