The United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) have condemned increasing threats and intimidation against human rights defenders and activists in the country.
The two institutions have since asked Lilongwe, and specifically, the Malawi Police Service (MPS), to ensure that attacks and threats against human rights defenders are thoroughly investigated. They have also called for the protection of civil society actors.
The concerns follow an incident at the offices of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), one of the civil society organisations (CSOs) headquartered in Lilongwe, last week where five unknown thugs severely beat up a security guard before attempting to petrol-bomb the premises.
Earlier, executive director for Mzuzu-based Youth and Society (YAS), Charles Kajoloweka, alleged death threats from businessperson Leston Mulli.
In the statement issued on Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Liz Throssell observed that several incidents have been reported in the past few weeks, including against women, ahead of next year’s tripartite elections.
She said: “We are also concerned about an emerging pattern of threats and violence against women, members of Parliament and electoral candidates.
“One female MP’s car [Agness Nyalonje] was torched in Mangochi in the South of the country in August while another [Patricia Kaliati] was blocked from entering Parliament in April and faced further intimidation and threats over the past two months.
“We urge the authorities to ensure that attacks and threats against human rights defenders are thoroughly investigated and that the crucial work carried out by civil society actors is protected, in line with the government’s international human rights obligations.”
Throssell said it was particularly important in a pre-electoral context that an enabling environment is created for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
In a separate statement on Tuesday, the SAHRDN demanded the police and relevant government authorities to urgently and openly investigate the violence, assault and threats against the staff of the CHRR to bring the perpetrators to justice.
In that statement, Africa director at the International Commission of Jurists and Chairperson of SAHRDN, Arnold Tsunga, condemned what it termed the persecution of staff of the CHRR.
He said such attacks, besides being unlawful, also violate the rights to life, security and liberties of every person which are fundamentally guaranteed by the Constitution of Malawi, as well as international human rights law.
Police laxity worries opposition, MEC, CSOs
Two weeks ago, a research by our sister newspaper, Weekend Nation, based on serious violent cases published in Nation Publications Limited (NPL) titles—Weekend Nation, The Nation and Nation on Sunday—indicated that out of 15 incidents of violence that occurred between 2014 and 2018, Police only acted swiftly on one incident.
According to its findings, the one case they acted on involved opposition parties, while those linked to supporters of the ruling DPP are largely ignored.
It involved the March 2016 Mzuzu fracas that occurred during a solidarity political rally conducted by Malawi Congress Party (MCP), People’s Party (PP) and Alliance for Democracy (Aford), where some machete-wielding youths ambushed the then PP acting president Uladi Mussa.
The latest incident occurred in Mangochi, where two vehicles—one belonging to the United Transformation Movement (UTM) and another to a UTM member, Mzimba North legislator Agnes Nyalonje—were torched by unknown assailants.
UTM spokesperson Joseph Chidanti-Malunga said his movement was worried with the pace and direction which investigations into the arson attack were taking.
As political violence heightens, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) also expressed fear that if left unchecked, the rising acts of terror in form of political violence, would ultimately affect efforts to hold free and fair elections in May 2019.
MEC chief executive officer Sam Alfandika expressed worry at the recent incidences of politically-motivated violent acts, saying they may paralyse the electoral process.
In a 2016 study on Electoral Conflict and Violence in Malawi: Patterns, Nature and Mitigation Measures, governance specialist Henry Chingaipe observed that in many cases, perpetrators of violence are not arrested or charged, with victims receiving little or no redress.
He recommended that preventing electoral conflicts and violence requires building and nurturing institutional arrangements that enjoy broad-based legitimacy so that democratic electoral competition does not accord violence a place in strategies for winning elections.
In addition, MCP publicity secretary the Reverend Maurice Munthali said in a statement on Monday that it was more worrisome that these violent acts are happening after President Peter Mutharika warned that he will drop on his critics ‘“like a tonne of bricks”.
Govt, DPP defensive
Reacting to the concerns, President Peter Mutharika’s adviser on CSOs, Mavuto Bamusi said the State has no business in perpetrating violence.
He said: “Any such allegations need to be cautiously peddled to avoid CSO leaders speaking on the basis of unfounded and politically inspired platforms.
“CSO leaders and human rights defenders are, therefore, urged to exercise restraint and desist from the tendency of always dragging the State in every figment of their imagination. The State will always promote peace and defend the rights and security of all citizens and property.”
Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Nicholas Dausi, who is also spokesperson of ruling DPP could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
However, in an earlier interview with our sister newspaper Weekend Nation following the arson on CHRR offices, Dausi dismissed any possibility that the party was responsible for the attacks, saying the allegations were baseless.