The Malawi Police Service is investigating its officers over allegations of sexual offenses against female protesters during recent post-election demonstrations in the capital, Lilongwe. The inquiry comes after rights campaigners say they have evidence of sexual harassment, rape and torture of women during the rallies, which often turned violent.
The protests began when demonstrators at Msundwe Trading Centre blocked ruling party supporters from attending a political rally President Peter Mutharika addressed.
Female protesters say police humiliated them in front of their children.
One alleged victim who requested to remain anonymous said, “The police beat us up severely that we were unable to walk. But when we regained strength and walked away, they followed us into our homes where they tore off our clothes and underwear and start touching [us] everywhere.”
Women’s rights group NGO-Gender Coordinating Network said in a statement that it has recorded evidence from several victims including three girls who said police raped them in their homes.
On Friday, the women's rights campaigners, including the Women Lawyers Association of Malawi and the Women’s legal Resource Centre, held street protests in the capital, Lilongwe, demanding thorough investigations in the matter and the immediate arrest of police officers involved.
But James Kadadzera, the spokesperson for the Malawi Police Service, says it is too early to start arresting anyone.
“There is an inquiry team in place to find out if indeed these allegations leveled against the police are true. So, if the report says the allegations are true, and then it will come up with suspects, so those suspects will now be investigated,” he said.
Kadadzera refused to disclose the progress of the inquiry.
“I cannot come out and start giving out bits of how the inquiry is going. We will wait till they finish the inquiry and they will furnish us with the report. And this report will be for public consumption,” Kadadzera said.
Malawi has been facing a wave of violent protests since President Peter Mutharika secured a second term in May, which opposition leaders are now challenging in court, seeking a nullification of the presidential election.
Observers doubt the independence of the police inquiry.
Political analyst Vincent Kondowe says allowing the police to investigate its own officers is wrong.
“A subject who has been suspected of having been involved in certain criminal elements cannot investigate himself. Therefore, there could been other state oversight institutions which should be called upon to investigate such allegations. In this instance, we are talking about [the] Malawi Human Rights Commission and the Office of Ombudsman.”
Police spokesperson Kadadzera sought to allay those fears.
“This inquiry team will do its job without bias. If anybody [has] doubts, we are saying ‘why can’t they just join the inquiry?' Because there is no point standing far and proclaim that police will not do any job without coming in and participate,” Kadadzera said.
However rights campaigners say they will conduct their own investigations should the police inquiry fail to come up with a balanced report.
In the meantime, the Association of Women Lawyers in the country has offered free legal assistance to the victims.