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Malawi temporarily bans protest demos

Three months after holding peaceful general elections on 21 May, Malawi has seen thousands of marchers take to the streets every week to protest against the country’s disputed presidential results.The well-attended protests at the end of August to shut down the country’s land and air borders for three days have led the Malawi Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale to obtain a court order to ban the gatherings on behalf of the government.

However, the ban granted by the Supreme Court of Malawi, only gave the government of President Peter Mutharika a 14-day moratorium from the street protests whose conduct are guaranteed in the country’s Constitution, which, ironically, the then law professor Mutharika helped in its drafting in 1994 at the onset of the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the country.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered Kaphale and the leaders of the protesting body, known as the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), to hammer out a solution to end the protests which have taken a toll on the country’s social, economic and political life – with business premises left damaged, business people losing their businesses and leaving state buildings burning from petrol bombs and arsonists.

The HDRC and its followers have alleged that the May polls which announced Mutharika as the winner were allegedly rigged in his favour by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) and its chairperson Jane Ansah. Due to this, the protestors want her and fellow commissioners to be removed from office.

Ansah, who declared the presidential results as free and fair, said she would only leave the MEC leadership if a court of law found her at fault in the running of the polls – a stand that has infuriated the HDRC and its supporters further, thereby fuelling the current demonstrations which have spread nationwide in both numbers and fury.

With Ansah apparently being backed by the president, who appointed her in the first place, the demonstrations have picked up steam as every week the protestors have been called to march in the country’s major cities to demand Ansah’s departure from MEC.

The HDRC’s call to shut down airports and other entry points into the country, however, touched a raw nerve in Mutharika’s government, forcing the Malawi leader to publicly order the army and police to use force to stop the protestors “by any means necessary” – which the protestors interpreted as the use of deadly force against them.

In spite of the threats to unleash police officers and soldiers against them, the speech only led the defiant HDRC leadership to publicly defy Mutharika, telling him that he and his regime had no power to overrule the country’s constitution.

The supreme law, they reminded the president, gave Malawians – including Mutharika himself — the freedom to stage peaceful and non-violent protests and that the protestors would go ahead with the airport and border entries demonstrations – in the process writing to diplomatic missions to warn them of this impending move.

The United States embassy responded by issuing a travel advisory to its locally based citizens and elsewhere to take note of Malawi’s pending border entry shutdowns by the HDRC.

The three-day shutdown, set for 27 to 30 August was first interrupted by a government statement from Information Minister Mark Botomani who told the HDRC that it had no permit to carry out the nationwide protests.

The HRDC, following this ministerial statement, rushed to the Malawi High Court to complain. In its pronouncement, the court overruled Botomani’s statement — granting the HDRC its approval as prescribed by law to proceed with the demonstrations.

The high court’s ruling meant that the three-day airports and borders shutdown would take place as planned starting on 27 August. Alarmed of what a national borders shutdown would do a landlocked nation like Malawi for its social and economic well-being, the attorney general rushed to the Supreme Court of Appeal in efforts to quash the high court’s decision.

In this regard, the Supreme Court provided the top lawman some relief against the staging of the protests. However, the Supreme Court only granted the government a two-week moratorium as it ordered the two opposing parties to sort out their differences outside the courtroom.

Efforts to kick off the discussions took place on Friday, amid alleged bomb threats against the HRDC leadership, where a man allegedly carrying a deadly bomb tried to target the protestors in efforts to sabotage the talks. He was allegedly apprehended by security agents at the hotel venue of the meeting in Lilongwe.

The security agents, however, have yet to reveal the alleged assassin’s identity – leaving the HRDC leaders to allege that the police’s laissez-faire attitude to the incident did not help matters.

This was the second time the HRDC leadership had been targeted, following an incident two weeks ago that saw HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo’s home and car petrol bombed as he slept.

Fortunately, no family members at the home were hurt in what has been described as an assassination attempt at the young human rights leader who recently lost his uncle after a police vehicle hit him while he was riding a bicycle in his home area of Chitipi District.

As the attorney general and the HRDC’s advocate agreed last Friday, on Monday the two sides will provide each other with a “wish list”, explaining what is expected of them during the moratorium discussions which are expected to resume on Wednesday this week in the capital Lilongwe.

Meanwhile, Mutharika’s lawyers and those of MEC will return to the Constitutional Court of Malawi to continue fighting political opposition charges accusing them of rigging the 21 May polls.

The opposition are demanding the cancellation of the presidential results due to alleged irregularities, including the admitted use of correction fluid Tippex by MEC officials on the results sheets during the polling exercise – leaving the opposition to claim that this made the presidential results null and void.

The trial enters its second month of hearing in September.

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