Political temperatures rose yesterday amid mounting pressure for Malawi Police Service (MPS) to release two Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) leaders arrested on Sunday evening for planning to shut down State Residences.
Leading the onslaught against the arrests of HRDC vice-chairperson Gift Trapence and Central Region chairperson McDonald Sembereka was opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera who said if police do not release the duo within 48 hours, he will mobilise followers to march on State House.
Others who picked up the ‘release’ chorus, includeed UTM Party, the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Mzuzu-based civil society groups—all pushing for the two activists’ unconditional release.
Also on police hunt-list is Timothy Mtambo—the HRDC chairperson who the police say is on the run with an arrest warrant hanging over him.
But the Malawi Law Society (MLS) took a different path, saying the police have the right to arrest anyone planning to commit a crime—a posture the police themselves have taken, stating in a statement yesterday that the trio—Trapence, Mtambo and Sembereka—broke the law in planning to shut down State House.
The rights activists want to pressure President Peter Mutharika—who has branded HRDC a terrorist group—to replace electoral commissioners who the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) declared incompetent based on their handling of the May 2019 elections—an assessment the Public Appointments Committee of Parliament agreed with and recommended that the President should fire and replace them.
The group also wants Mutharika to assent to electoral reform laws that Parliament passed in conformity with the ConCourt ruling.
In his statement, Chakwera said both the rally that Mutharika held at Njamba Freedom Park in Blantyre on Sunday and the subsequent arrests of the rights activists are the latest in a series of examples over the last 10 months of the President’s failure to comply with the law; failure to keep his party matters separate from State issues and failure to respect the independence of State institutions, among others.
He said since the ConCourt nullified the May 21 2019 presidential election, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has staged protests without police muzzle even as the demonstrators marched all the way to Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe, which is the President’s official residence, where they presented their grievances.
Said Chakwera: “This selective and partisan application of rights is unacceptable. By ordering these spurious arrests and doing so from the platform of a political party’s rally, Mr. Mutharika is in breach of several provisions of the Constitution.”
According to the MCP leader, political parties are obliged to observe Section 10 (a) of the Constitution, which states that “in the resolution of political disputes, the provisions of this Constitution shall be regarded as the supreme arbiter and ultimate source of authority”.
Citing a number of clauses, Chakwera emphasised that the two leaders deserve the right not to be detained by reason of their political opinion in compliance with Section 19 (f) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi.
The UTM Party used fliers to condemn the arrests but also demand the immediate release of the two leaders, who have since spent two nights in cells in Blantyre.
In his statement, SAHRDN regional programmes manager Washington Katema said the two leaders were arbitrarily arrested and must, therefore, be released unconditionally since they were planning to hold peaceful demonstrations.
Reads part of the statement: “As SAHRDN, we fear for lives of the arrested human rights defenders given that anything is possible to be done against them while detained, including torture, inhuman and other degrading treatment as well as possibilities of slow poisoning.”
Meanwhile, at a joint press conference yesterday, civil society organisations (CSOs) in Mzuzu warned that if Sembereka and Trapence are not released they will mobilise the public for mass demonstrations.
Among the CSO leaders present at the briefing were Charles Kajoloweka of Youth and Society (YAS), Moses Mkandawire of Church and Society of the Livingstonia Synod and Gibson Chisale of Pace.
On his part, Malawi Law Society president Burton Mhango acknowledged an irregularity on the arrest but backed the police action, saying by planning to seal State Residences, which are protected, the three leaders flouted laws of the land.
He cautioned leaders to abide by the rule of law whenever conducting their business in their capacity as human rights defenders.
Mhango said: “An attempt to commit an offence is a crime and planning can lead to committing an offence. If someone was planning to seal State House that was reason enough to be picked….
“But we need to put a context on the matter that these are human rights defenders and if there is an arrest, then they might be trying to block them from holding demonstrations. But they [HRDC] leaders need not to be lawless in their conduct.”
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera justified the duo’s arrest, saying they obtained a warrant of arrest for the three leaders for violating Section 124 of the Penal Code, which prohibits any person from breaking the law. He said: “The three suspects are fully aware that Section 103 of the Police Act prohibits any demonstrations or assemblies within a hundred metres from State Residences unless the same have been permitted by the State President. This means that no one can seal a State Residence unless they breach the provisions of Section 103 of the Police Act.”