Malawi: authorities escalate crackdown with arrests of rights activists

Malawian authorities have mounted a crackdown on dissent ahead of the general election rerun on 19 May by arresting two prominent human rights activists, Amnesty International said today.

Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka, who have been vocal critics of last year’s election, have been in police custody since yesterday after they were arrested in Lilongwe for threatening to march to the State House. An arrest warrant has been issued against a third activist, Timothy Mtambo. The activists are linked with local NGO, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and have been leading national protests against last year’s election, which was subsequently nullified by the court.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, said:

“The arrests of Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka are deeply troubling, coming amidst the highly charged political environment ahead of the election rerun. Many human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, including by President Arthur Mutharika.

“Malawi authorities must immediately and unconditionally release the detained activists. The authorities must stop threatening, harassing and intimidating human rights defenders and allow them to freely exercise their rights.

“The latest arrests are part of a well-orchestrated campaign aimed at intimidating and harassing activists. It sends a chilling message that they will be punished for exercising their human rights.”

The three men have been targeted for mobilising people to protest against the election. In August 2019, Timothy Mtambo narrowly escaped harm after three petrol bombs were thrown into his compound. One hit and torched his car, while the second was thrown at the gate and the third narrowly missed his house.

Background

Last week, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) called on President Mutharika to assent to the new legislation that has been passed in parliament on the conduct of elections due to be held on 19 May, among others. The coalition threatened to march to the State House on 25 March if President Mutharika continued to delay assenting to the law and carrying out the necessary electoral reforms.

At the weekend, President Mutharika warned Mtambo and his leadership team at the HRDC that they would be dealt with if they marched to the State House. The president mentioned Mtambo, Trapence and Sembereka by their names. 

The Office of the Inspector General issued a statement earlier today, accusing the three activists of inciting people to break the law by calling on the public to march to the State House during their press conference on 6 March 2020.

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