URGENT: Please Endorse – Intimidation of Rights Defenders in Malawi

Published: March 15, 2011

Dear colleagues,

Please find attached a statement, addressed at the President and government of Malawi, denouncing the wave of intimidation and threats being waged against civil society organizations and human rights defenders, including ARASA partners such as the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, in Malawi.

We especially encourage organizations across Africa to endorse the statements and to circulate it to their networks.

Please send your organizational endorsements to alan@arasa.info before 18:00 GMT on Thursday, 17 March.  We also attach statements from the Civil Society Grand Coalition for the Defense of Democracy and Good Governance in Malawi as well as Frontline regarding this issue. We encourage you to endorse these statement as well.

With regards,

Felicita Hikuam


African Civil Society Groups Strongly Condemn Harassment and Intimidation of Malawian Human Rights Defenders

Human rights activists from across Africa and beyond strongly denounce the recent campaign of threats, intimidation and incitement of violence targeted at human rights defenders by the Malawian government.

The AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and its partners learned with concern that, following the halting – by the Malawi Police and Lilongwe City Assembly – of a peaceful demonstration planned by civil society organizations to take place on 14 February, President of Malawi, Bingu Wa Mutharika, summoned civil society leaders to the state house on 23 February 2011. During this meeting, the President threatened to mobilise his political party members to crush any civil society demonstrations aimed at sharing views, which differ from his and those of his government.

Following this incident, leaders of civil society organizations and coalitions working with human rights issues, democracy and governance, amongst them Mr. Undule Mwakasungula, Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Reverend MacDonald Sembereka of the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders living with HIV, reported that they were receiving threats, including anonymous telephone calls and text messages asking for the location of their offices and homes.

On 3 March 2011, unknown persons broke into the offices of the CHRR and demanded that the security guard on duty take them to the home of Mr. Undule Mwakasungula, CHRR’s Executive Director, who is also Chairperson of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) in Malawi. In a clear sign of intimidation, the guard was beaten and abandoned far away from the office, but the assailants, who were armed with pangas, knives and gallons of petrol, took nothing from the CHRR offices.

During a public rally for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Blantyre on 6 March 2011, President Bingu wa Mutharika told his party supporters during a speech that was broadcast on national television and radio, that he left it in their hands to “protect their father and discipline critics who insult me”, in what was widely interpreted as a call to violence against government critics. 

This call was supported by senior party officials, including the DPP’s Secretary General, Bintony Kutsaila, the Presidential official spokesperson, Hetherwick Ntaba, Deputy Minister in the Office of the President and Cabinet, Nicholas Dausi as well as Minister of Youth Development, Sports and culture, Luscious Kanyumba from the ruling party, during a publicly broadcast press conference on 7 March. During his statement, Mr. Kutsaila is reported by the Nyasa Times of Malawi as saying that: “they will not sit down when the government is being victimized.” Subsequently, the HRCC received a strongly worded letter signed by the National Youth Forum threatening to close down HRCC and its leadership.

On 9 March, armed police visited the home of Mr. Mwakasungula in Karonga district on what was explained as a “routine check”. However, in the days following, media reports anonymously quoted a police officer as saying that they had received orders ‘from above’ to confirm the address of Mr. Mwakasungula.

This wave of intimidation and harassment of civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Malawi is not a solution, nor is it acceptable. Organisations such as HRCC play a critical role in ensuring sustained and transparent socio-economic progress for the benefit of all Malawian citizens.

As fellow activists and human rights defenders, we stand in solidarity with Malawian civil society and deplore efforts to silence the voices of human rights defenders with this wave of intimidation, threats and harassment. 

The Malawian government has an obligation, under chapter 4 of its constitution, to respect and protect the right of Malawians to express political or other opinions; the right not to be subject to searches of his or her person, home or property; as well as freedom of expression, association and the right to assemble and demonstrate with others peacefully and unarmed.

We call on the Malawian government to discontinue its attempts to incite the Malawian public against human rights defenders; and to cease attempts to undermine democracy by intimidating and silencing the voices of people who exercise their constitutional right to voice criticism of the government.

We support the demands issued by the Malawian Civil Society Grand Coalition for the Defense of Democracy and Good Governance, the Congress of Trade Unions, Academics as well as Frontline, that:

  • The Malawian President and other government officials immediately cease any public statements and declarations against human rights defenders and civil society organisations in relation to their legitimate work of monitoring good governance and human rights situation in the country;
  • The Malawi Human Rights Commission and the Police,  carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the threats and intimidation targeted at human rights defenders; the break in at the office of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation; and the assault against CHRR personnel, with a view to publishing the results and bringing those responsible to justice;
  • The relevant authorities, including all independent constitutional institutions of human rights and governance such as the Malawian Human Rights Commission, Office of the Inspector General and Ombudsman, take all necessary measures to ensure the physical and psychological integrity and security of human rights defenders in Malawi, including Undule Mwakasungula, who may be targeted with violence as recent incidents indicate;


Front Line Defenders Statement: Malawi – Intimidation campaign and threats against human rights defenders to prevent pro-reform protests (pdf)

The Civil Society Grand Coalition for the Defense of Democracy and Good Governance: International Alert on Imminent Dangers to Human Rights Defenders and Civil Society Leaders in Malawi (pdf)


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