BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Pressure is mounting on Malawi's government to release three activists detained this week for planning to hold protests aimed at shutting down presidential residences.
Two members of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) — vice chairperson Gift Trapence and member Macdonald Sembereka — were arrested Sunday after saying they would organize demonstrations. HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo surrendered to police Tuesday.
Their aim was to pressure President Peter Mutharika to sign electoral reform bills paving the way for fresh elections after Malawi's constitutional court nullified last May's polls. The court cited massive irregularities in the vote, which saw Mutharika reelected.
The electoral bills propose a date for fresh elections and procedures to follow in case of runoffs.
Police say Mtambo, Trapence and Sembereka will face charges of inciting people to close state residences, under Section 124 of the Penal Code.
Rights group criticizes arrests
But Amnesty International says the arrests are a government attempt to crack down on dissenting views.
The international human rights body has asked Malawi authorities to "immediately and unconditionally release the detained activists."
"The activists simply stated their intention, which is allowed under freedom of expression," said Vongai Chikwanda, Amnesty International's campaigner for Southern Africa. "The crime has not been committed. So are you arresting people before the crime has been committed? However, the police should have simply said, 'According to our laws, this is what the penal code says in relation to what has been proposed.' It does not warrant an arrest."
The arrests were made just hours after Mutharika denounced the planned protest at a Blantyre political rally and ordered security to stop the group.
Chikwanda said in a Whatsapp interview that such statements put the lives of activists at risk.
"We all know that Timothy [Mtambo] narrowly escaped petrol bomb attacks the last time at his home, his car was torched the last time. So these are the kind of actions that we end up seeing by those who are overzealous and you put activists' lives at risk by such threats," Chikwanda said.
Government defends actions
Mark Botoman, the Malawi government's spokesperson, said those condemning the government are ignorant on the country's laws.
"I think you understand that Amnesty International does not live in Malawi," he said. "They may have connections in Malawi, they may be fed with information from here, but I think the context of the matter is these people have been arrested because they are suspected to have committed a crime. And in our country, whether you are a human rights defender or anyone else, including myself as a minister, if I break the law, the long arm of law can catch up with me."
On Wednesday, a court in Lilongwe denied bail to the three activists.
Meanwhile, the opposition Malawi Congress Party called for a nationwide demonstration Thursday, pushing for the release of the activists and for Mutharika to sign the electoral reforms bills.