SALC Writes to the New Malawian President
April 16, 2012
The new President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, has demonstrated in her first week in charge that her administration will be vastly different to her predecessor’s. Bingu wa Mutharika had been in power in Malawi since 2004 but his death on 5 April 2012 came in the wake of increased opposition to his leadership and the culture of violent oppression of dissent that he had presided over in the recent past. Although President Banda appears to have recommitted Malawi to democracy and the rule of law, SALC today wrote to the new president highlighting some of the most pressing matters needing her attention.
Violent attacks on government critics and human rights defenders had become widespread over the past year. Possibly the most serious, and definitely the most public, acts of repression came in July 2011 when demonstrators took to the streets to protest the chronic fuel shortages, deteriorating economic conditions, and the series of repressive laws passed by the government. Police used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the protesters, leaving 19 people dead and scores injured. Despite local, regional and international condemnation of the handling of the protests, attacks directed at Mutharika’s opponents continued. In September 2011, the houses of opposition politician, Salim Bagus, and Rev. MacDonald Sembereka and the offices of the Institute for Policy Interaction were razed in firebomb attacks. It appears that the Institute was targeted because its executive director, Rafik Hajat, was one of the activists responsible for organising the July protests. A private lawyer, Patrick Mpaka, was also the victim of repeated firebombing attempts: in September 2011 his house was set alight; in January 2011 he sustained minor burns when a petrol bomb was thrown into the car he was travelling in and in February 2011 he fortuitously found four firebombs in his garden before they were able to cause any damage. The highly publicised arrest of Ralph Kasambara followed his apprehension of a group of men he suspected of attempting to firebomb his law offices, and a petrol bomb was later found in their possession. On 24 September 2011 student activist, Robert Chasowa, was found dead at Polytechnic College where he was studying engineering. The death was officially ruled a suicide, however his family and political commentators believe the injuries suffered could not have resulted from a fall from a fifth storey window as officially recorded but that, instead, they indicated assault.
President Banda has instituted an investigation into Chasowa’s death, and, in its letter, SALC urged her to broaden the investigation to ensure that all perpetrators of these violent attacks are held accountable, and that the victims receive appropriate justice and compensation.
The 3-month long judicial strike which began in January crippled the judiciary and, because during the judicial strike police continued to arrest and detain scores of people, this has contributed to a massive increase in the prison population. Malawian prison conditions are notoriously bad, and the overcrowding in the recent months has led to dramatically worsening conditions for prisoners. Additionally, in the period following their arrest and detention, many detainees have not had their core constitutional rights protected, including the right to be charged within 48 hours, under section 42(2) (b) of the Constitution, and the right to have their detention reviewed every 15 days. SALC has urged the president to take decisive steps to ensure that all those persons detained without charge and without having had their detention periodically reviewed be afforded recourse.
President Mutharika’s curtailment of freedom of the press and of expression was highlighted by his government’s amendment of section 46 of the Penal Code last year to allow the government to ban any publication it deems contrary to the public interest. In its letter SALC urged President Banda to continue the process she has started by dismissing the Director-General of the Malawi Broadcasting Commission, and so to ensure that the MBC becomes a truly public broadcaster, and that freedom of expression and of the press is respected in Malawi.
This amendment of section 46 of the Penal Code is one of the laws that was identified as infringing human rights, and so would form part of a review of all such legislation that was announced by the then Minister of Justice and Leader of the National Assembly in December 2011. President Mutharika’s government did not take any concrete action to institute such a review and SALC urged the new president to put in place a process that would identify and review all legislation that infringes human rights.
Malawi is due to host the upcoming African Union Summit and SALC used its letter to draw attention to Malawi’s obligations as a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Rome Statute requires cooperation from states parties in arresting and transferring indicted suspects to the International Criminal Court. SALC emphasized that these obligations mean that Malawi should not host Sudanese president, Omar al Bashir, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued by the ICC, at the summit and should arrest him if he were to enter Malawi.
The appointment of President Banda in the wake of a crisis situation precipitated by President Mutharika’s governance has provided Malawi with a unique opportunity to re-establish itself as a respected democracy in southern Africa. President Banda’s actions so far have inspired confidence that she will take the decisive steps necessary to strengthen Malawi’s democracy and protect its citizens, and SALC hopes that, over the first 90 days of her presidency, she will continue on this course and provide Malawi with a solid foundation for political and economic stability and growth.