BLANTYRE - Malawi police have arrested two activists with the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) for their role in a planned sit-in to shut down state residences. The demonstration aimed to pressure President Peter Mutharika to sign election reforms bills passed by parliament.
Malawi police say the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) activists were arrested on Sunday because of statements they made at a press conference on March 6 in the capital, Lilongwe.
The HRDC called on Malawians to seal-off all state residences with a sit-in on March 25 to pressure President Peter Mutharika to sign an election reform bill passed by parliament.
Police arrested HRDC vice chairperson Gift Trapence and member Macdonald Sembereka.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera on Monday said the plan amounted to incitement for unauthorized assembly.
“Basically, the charge is coming under Section 124 of the Penal Code that is of inciting people to seal state residences. In fact, we have in custody the two individuals. We will take them to court anytime soon," he said.
Kadadzera said police were also looking for a third person, HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo.
The arrests were made just hours after Mutharika denounced the planned protest at a Blantyre political rally and ordered security to stop the group.
“Nobody in this country is above the law. Mtambo cannot be bigger than the government. [Gift] Trapence, [MacDonald] Sembereka, [Billy] Mayaya you are not bigger than the government. Get my word, your time is up, the party is over, go and smell the coffee,” said Mtambo.
The group’s spokesman Luke Tembo said they will not be intimidated by the arrests.
“HRDC is a system, HRDC is not about individuals. We are going to proceed with our plans; they are not going to intimidate us. What we are going to do now is making sure that our colleagues are released on bail and then we proceed with our planned engagements,” he said.
Malawi’s parliament in February passed the electoral reforms bills, which paves the way for fresh elections after the constitutional court nullified the May polls.
The court cited massive irregularities in the vote, which saw Mutharika re-elected.
The electoral bills propose a date for fresh elections and procedures to follow in case of runoffs.
Malawi’s constitution gives the president 21 days to sign the bills into law. But, some activists, like the HRDC, and opposition parties worry Mutharika will drag out the process.
Political science lecturer at the University of Malawi Mustapha Hussein said Sunday’s arrests were heavy-handed and a bad sign.
“You can see now the arrest comes after the president said something. It’s like the police were incited as well to do some sort of arrest which I think does not paint a good picture of the government. It’s like a sign of political intolerance so to speak or wanting to victimize human rights activists,” he said.
Hussein said since the shutdown was yet to happen, the police should have first discussed the planned protest with the activists.
Since last year’s May election results, the HRDC has been organizing protests, which have sometimes turned violent.
Opposition Malawi Congress Party president Lazarus Chakwera in a statement Monday gave the government 48 hours to release the rights activists. He said if they remained in custody by Wednesday he would hold his own march to state house.