CIVICUS, the global alliance of civil society organisations, together with the Malawian Human Rights Defenders Network (HRDN) and the Centre for Human rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), call for the immediate release of human rights defenders in Malawi ahead of their bail hearing today.
Gift Trapence, a human rights defender and Deputy Chair of the Human Rights Defenders Network (HRDN), and MacDonald Sembereka were arrested on 8 March in Lilongwe and detained at Area 3 Police Station before they were taken to Blantyre.
Another human rights defender, Timothy Mtambo, head of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHHR) and Chair of HRDN, handed himself into police on 10 March.
They have not been charged and the Malawi Police Service accuse all three of violating Section 124 of the Penal Code by planning to hold protests outside State House on 25 March.
The arrests were made after the HRDC announced that it was planning to hold peaceful protests and “shut down” State House on 25 March 2020 to force President Peter Mutharika to sign electoral reform bills which were passed by Parliament in February 2020. In response to calls for protests on 25 March, President Mutharika threatened human rights defenders during a rally of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) party and called on the security forces to use all means necessary against the protesters.
Since Presidential elections were held in May 2019, the Malawian authorities have used violence, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, threats and harassment to curb civil society organisations -particularly those calling for reforms of the electoral commission and those who are critical of the actions of President Mutharika and his DPP party. In July 2019 Gift Trapence and MacDonald Sembereka were arrested and detained on accusations of operating an illegal NGO, despite the fact that their NGO is registered under Malawi’s Companies Act.
The arrests of these three human rights defenders is part of ongoing efforts by the Malawian authorities to silence human rights defenders and erode civil freedoms:
“The recent arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders follow vile threats made by senior members of the DPP party. Since the May 2019 elections civil society groups and human rights defenders have been calling for a more transparent and accountable government. The authorities have often responded by using violence to target peaceful assemblies and arresting human rights defenders,” said CHRR’s Michael Simon Kaiyatsa.
Over the last ten months civil society groups and members of the political opposition have been holding peaceful protests calling for democratic reforms. The authorities have responded with violence and death threats against human rights defenders. In August 2019, the home and car of human rights defender Timothy Mtambo were set alight and he was threatened with death by a member of the DPP. Another human rights defender and coordinator of the HRDN, Moir Walita Mkandawire, was physically assaulted and hospitalized for injuries sustained in his eyes.
CIVICUS, CHRR and HRDN call for the immediate release of Gift Trapence, MacDonald Sembereka and Timothy Mtambo. We also ask the authorities to stop intimidating representatives of civil society and respect the rights of all Malawians to protest peacefully and raise concerns over issues affecting them.
Malawi is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks the state of civic space around the world.