Human rights defenders and other government critics were subjected to harassment and intimidation. Several civil society leaders were forced into hiding as attacks on government critics increased. Anti-government protests were brutally suppressed when police used live ammunition on protesters. An amendment to the Penal Code further restricted freedom of the press. Lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people continued to face persecution.
Tensions increased throughout the year as civil society continued to express concerns about human rights violations, the deteriorating economic situation and bad governance.
The British High Commissioner to Malawi was expelled in April following the leaking of a diplomatic cable in which he described President Mutharika’s rule as increasingly “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”. The UK government responded by expelling Malawi’s representative to the UK and freezing aid. In July, the UK indefinitely suspended general budget support to Malawi worth £19 million, in line with other international donors who had previously suspended or ended general budget support, citing concerns about economic management, governance and human rights. Following the deaths in July of 19 people when police used live ammunition to break up protests, the USA withheld US$350 million in aid.
In breach of its legal obligations to the International Criminal Court, Malawi failed to arrest Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir during his visit in October for a regional trade summit.Top of page
Human rights defenders and other critics of the government were harassed and intimidated including through death threats, forced entry to homes and offices, petrol bombings and other attacks. There were several suspicious break-ins at NGO offices. Threats and attacks were made either by people identifying themselves as aligned with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or by unidentified men believed to be state security agents. Human rights defenders speaking at international forums and those involved in organizing anti-government demonstrations were publicly criticized and threatened with violence and arrest by government officials, including President Mutharika.
In January, Section 46 of the Penal Code was amended to give the Minister of Information arbitrary exercise of power to prohibit a publication “if the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest.”
On 20 and 21 July, protests over bad governance, fuel shortages and human rights abuses took place in major urban centres including Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba. At least 19 people were killed and several people, including children, were injured after police used live ammunition to break up the protests. In the northern town of Mzuzu, nine people were killed and dozens, including children, suffered gunshot wounds. Around 500 people were arrested in connection with the protests, including several human rights activists, who were briefly detained on 20 July and released without charge.
Twenty-two journalists reported being beaten by police during the protests. At least eight sustained serious injuries from assaults with gun butts. Many journalists covering the protests had their equipment, including cameras and writing materials, seized and destroyed or discarded by police. Two journalists, Collins Mtika and Vitima Ndovi, were arrested and held for several days; both said they were beaten by police. Four independent radio stations covering the demonstrations were temporarily taken off air.
On 14 October, five activists – Billy Mayaya of the Presbyterian Nkhoma Synod and Habiba Osman, a lawyer with the NGO Norwegian Church Aid, as well as Brian Nyasulu, Ben Chiza Mkandawire and Comfort Chitseko – were arrested after participating in a demonstration urging President Mutharika to hold a referendum calling for an early election.Top of page
In January, Malawi enacted a law criminalizing sexual relations between women. In April, two men, Stanley Kanthunkako and Stephano Kalimbakatha, were charged with buggery and gross indecency and awaited trial at Zomba Magistrates Court. In May at a DPP rally in Lilongwe, President Mutharika described gay men as “worse than dogs”.Top of page