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Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - Malawi

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1994
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - Malawi, 1 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca7a2.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

In 1993, Malawi joined the pro-democracy trend in Africa by abandoning its twenty-seven-year-old system of one-party rule. In an unprecedented referendum held in June, 63.5 percent of voters opted for a multiparty system, thereby dealing a decisive blow to Malawi's nonagenarian ruler, then-Life President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since independence in 1964. ("Life" has since been removed from his title.) The opposition's margin of victory was particularly significant considering the number of obstacles that the government placed in its path during the campaign period, including violent attacks on and arrests of opposition members, arbitrary bans on rallies, lack of access to the state-controlled radio, and restrictions on the printed press.

The most severe human rights abuses characteristic of the Banda regime, including the assassination, torture, long-term detention and exile of opponents, eased in the post-election period. A number of problems remained, however, particularly abuses by the police, who held themselves above the law, and abysmal conditions of detention. In addition, the Malawi Young Pioneers, a paramilitary wing of the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP), defied orders to disarm and continued to pose a threat to opposition members and the transition process.

Popular demonstrations against the government began in March 1992, following the issuance of a letter by the country's Catholic bishops that candidly criticized human rights abuses. The government reacted harshly, and in May 1992 major bilateral donors agreed to an aid freeze based on the country's abysmal human rights record. Five months later, President Banda stated his agreement to hold a referendum on one-party rule, and he invited a technical mission from the United Nations (U.N.) to visit the country to offer advice on the referendum process.

The first U.N. mission arrived in November 1992 and recommended the repeal or suspension of all laws that placed restrictions on freedoms of expression and association. The group also advised a six-month campaignperiod, to allow opposition groups an adequate chance to prepare for the vote. In a New Year's Eve address to the nation, Banda promised to abide by the U.N. recommendations, while at the same time refusing to allow more than three months for the campaign. Another U.N. team visited Malawi in January 1993 and urged Banda to postpone the polling date and to respect the U.N. recommendations. In February, after receiving a letter from U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Banda finally agree to move the date to June 14.

In response to the U.N. recommendations regarding freedom of expression and association, the government adopted regulations in February to govern the campaign process. Although guaranteeing "complete and unhindered freedom of expression and information in the exercise of the right to campaign," the regulations included a prohibition on "language which is inflammatory, defamatory or insulting or which constitutes incitement to public disorder, insurrection, hate, violence or war." Only three "pressure groups" (the MCP was then the only legal party) were recognized: the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), the United Democratic Front (UDF) – both of these later became parties – and the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), which was composed of members of pro-democracy religious and professional bodies and opposition groups.

The government's guarantees proved meaningless throughout the campaign period, as police regularly denied opposition groups permission for rallies and arrested, beat and otherwise mistreated opposition figures for possessing documents advocating multi-partyism and even for wearing T-shirts bearing political slogans. At least 20,000 people attended the first officially sanctioned opposition rally in January, which was addressed by members of AFORD, the UDF and the PAC. Shortly thereafter, four churchmen belonging to AFORD – Revs. Aaron Longwe, who was charged with sedition in 1992 and released on bail, Peter Kaleso, John Mwambira and Willie Zingani – were prohibited from addressing public meetings, although a high court judge later ruled that the men had been unfairly banned. Members of the Young Pioneers physically assaulted opposition members; such incidents increased after Parliament in April granted the MCP legal immunity for any crimes committed during the pre-referendum period.

Following the opposition's victory on June 14, Banda accepted defeat but refused to accept the opposition's claim that its victory required Banda and the MCP government to resign. Shortly thereafter, Parliament repealed the sections of the constitution that made Malawi a one-party state. Exiles were granted amnesty. The government agreed to the formation of a National Consultative Council (NCC), made up of seven representatives of each political party (of which seven existed as of November), to provide guidance to Parliament and to oversee the transition, the May elections and the drafting of a new constitution that would take effect following elections on May 17, 1994.

Banda fell ill in early October and was flown to South Africa for brain surgery. In accordance with constitutional provisions, a three-person presidential council was appointed in his place and given full powers to run the government. The council was headed by the controversial secretary-general of the MCP, Gwanda Chakuamba, who had been appointed party head only a week earlier after a decade-long vacancy in the post. Chakuamba, the head of the Young Pioneers in its most violent heyday, was released from prison in June after serving thirteen years of a twenty-two year sentence for sedition after a falling-out with President Banda. After his release from prison in June, he had initially joined the UDF before rejoining the MCP. Another member of the presidential council was John Tembo, Minister of State in the President's Office, who, together with his niece, Banda's "official hostess" Cecilia Kadzamira, was believed to have assumed a large share of political power in the country. The third member of the council was Minister of Transport and Communications Robson Chirwa. The opposition protested the appointment of the presidential council, but the government refused its demand that an interim president acceptable to all parties be appointed instead.

In November, Parliament formalized reforms that the government had already agreed to in principle, including legalization of the NCC, the repeal of provisions for detention without trial, and passage of a bill of rights to take effect immediately following the election.

The conviction and sentencing in December 1992 of Chakufwa Chihana, secretary-general of the Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council and leader of AFORD, was a devastating blow to the opposition. Chihana, a longtime critic of the government and an extremely popular leader, had been detained in 1992 on several occasions totaling approximately five months andcharged with sedition. The charges related to papers he had delivered at a conference held in Zambia and an address he had planned for his return to Malawi on the prospects of multi-party democracy there, a topic that, following Banda's agreement to hold the referendum, was no longer off-limits. In December 1992, Chihana's conviction and sentence to two years in prison with hard labor sparked a demonstration at which some 260 protestors were arrested and held for five days; approximately 130 were charged with unlawful assembly. An appeal to the sentence was heard in March 1993, resulting in its reduction to nine months with hard labor. Some 6,000 demonstrators again protested, and police opened fire; at least five were wounded. While in prison, Chihana, who suffered from respiratory infections and headaches, was denied medical treatment, fed poorly and forced to engage in heavy labor throughout his illnesses. He was released on June 12, two days before the referendum.

One of Malawi's most celebrated long-term political prisoners, Vera Chirwa, was released from prison on humanitarian grounds in January after spending eleven years in prison on a treason charge. Her husband, Orton Chirwa, had died in prison the previous October. Both Orton and Vera Chirwa had been detained in harsh conditions, including confinement in leg irons at various times during their incarceration. Vera Chirwa had been allowed to see her husband only once during her imprisonment and was denied permission to attend his funeral.

Opposition leaders who were arrested in the run-up to the referendum included Bakili Muluzi, chair of the UDF and a former cabinet member of the MCP, who was arrested and held for three days in February. He was charged with misappropriating MCP funds during the 1970s. Chakakala Chaziya, vice chair of the UDF, and three other UDF members were arrested in January and detained for two weeks. Rev. Peter Kaleso was arrested in January after addressing an AFORD rally; he was later acquitted of charges that he had insulted the Life President. Alice Longwe, the wife of Rev. Longwe, was arrested and charged with sedition. An assassination attempt was reportedly made on Rev. Chinkwita Phiri, who at the time was acting general secretary of the Christian Council of Malawi.

A number of exiles returning to Malawi were arrested, including members of the United Front for Multiparty Democracy, an alliance of veteran exile politicians, who were detained in February upon their return from Zambia. One of the group who was holding a Zambian passport was deported; another was held without charge until his release in April. Three officials of the Malawi Democratic Party returned from exile in South Africa in February and were charged with importing seditious literature.

Detainees endured inhumane conditions of detention, including severe overcrowding, inadequate food and torture. Amnesty International reported that one detainee, Flora Kapito, who was arrested for possession of multiparty literature, died in detention in February as a result of injuries sustained while in prison. All pro-democracy activists were eventually released following the referendum. Amnesty International reports that three political prisoners – Nelson Mtambo, Sidney Songo and Htwana Mlombwa, all imprisoned since the mid-1960s – remained in prison after twenty-nine years. They were reportedly arrested in the aftermath of an armed rebellion led by a former cabinet minister. The government has never publicly admitted their imprisonment.

Many political trials in 1992 did not meet international standards for fairness, but there were some surprising decisions, including one in May in which a Malawi high court judge ordered the government to pay Martin Machipisa Munthali, a political prisoner released in June 1992 after twenty-seven years of confinement, the equivalent of $1 million; the government has since complied. Many prisoners continued on death row after unfair trials conducted by the so-called traditional courts, which, among other restrictions, prohibited legal representation for defendants. In October, traditional courts were suspended pending the repeal by Parliament of the laws under which they were established.

Because of Malawi's low literacy rate, radio, which was controlled by the government, was perhaps the most significant political tool in the campaign period, and it remained, predictably, in the control of the government. President Banda was the only campaigner allowed to broadcast on Malawi radio, and opposition rallies were not permitted live coverage.

Despite the referendum regulations lifting restrictions on the press, freedom of the press was not tolerated in the early months of the year. Independent newspapers, which did not exist before 1992, were occasionallyshut down. The editor of one such paper, New Express, Felix Mponda Phiri, was arrested on January 2 upon his return from Zambia with copies of the first issue of the paper. He was detained without charge for seventeen days. Two opposition newspapers – AFORD's The Democrat and UDF News – were temporarily banned in March.

Dozens of newspapers have now appeared in Malawi, and after the referendum they did not face any serious constraints. After the referendum, the government and opposition agreed on a code of conduct for radio broadcasts, which, however, was regularly flouted. Broadcasts continued to favor the government and ruling party, and government officials were able to censor news reports.

Serious human rights concerns that remained in Malawi included rampant abuses by the police force. Police continued to arrest and torture particularly outspoken critics of the government and regularly to flout court orders. Conditions in the prisons, which were under police control, were deplorable due to abuses by guards, overcrowding and inadequate food and medical care. Another area of concern was Malawi's judicial system, which lacked the independence necessary to fulfill its role as a guardian of human rights. Rectifying these institutionalized forms of abuse will require the inclusion of rights guarantees in the new constitution, a redrafting of laws which contravene human rights guarantees, and the active support of government leaders for internationally accepted human rights norms.

The Right to Monitor

Because of the government's absolute intolerance of dissent, human rights monitoring by Malawians was impossible before 1993. Starting in the pre-referendum period, several groups expressed an interest in monitoring human rights and began to formalize their work. Three such groups are the Civil Liberties Committee, an independent group founded in February, and the Law Society of Malawi and Christian Council of Malawi, both well-established organizations. In addition, a lawyer affiliated with AFORD, who recently founded the Foundation for Justice and Human Rights, has successfully brought human rights cases to the courts, including the case of Martin Machipisa Munthali described above.

International human rights groups were permitted to visit Malawi in 1993 and were granted meetings with high-level governmental officials.

The U.S. Role

The U.S. government played an important role in maintaining pressure on Banda during the run-up to the referendum. An aid freeze, which excepted humanitarian assistance, was agreed to by Malawi's major donors in May 1992 and was maintained by the U.S. government throughout the first half of 1993. Citing significant progress in moving toward democracy, on August 11 the U.S. released $11 million of that aid to Malawi, which was specifically targeted for literacy and agricultural projects. Total aid for fiscal year 1993 was $15.5 million, earmarked for projects on family planning, agriculture, AIDS prevention, child mortality and election support. A total of $15 million was requested for fiscal year 1994, but the request was expected to increase by $10 million. Another meeting with western donors was expected to be held in December 1993. World Bank loans to Malawi continued during the aid freeze.

An unusual and welcome demonstration of support for human rights by the U.S. government occurred in April, when Vice President Al Gore summoned the Malawian ambassador, Robert Mbaya, to the White House to discuss the referendum. According to a press release issued after the meeting, the vice president made the following statement to the Ambassador:

The administration is deeply interested in the process of democratization in Malawi. The upcoming referendum on a multiparty system is an extremely important event, and both its conduct and results will be watched closely by the international community.

The press release also noted that Vice President Gore raised human rights issues with Ambassador Mbaya and called for Chihana's immediate release.

The Voice of America played a commendable role in the pre-referendum period by airing a six-part series in the local language on political developments not reported on state radio.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrialized Organizations (AFL-CIO) filed a petition on workers rights in Malawi in 1992, following which the review committee of the Generalized System of Preferences(GSP) agreed in 1993 to examine Malawi's labor practices. A State Department official told Africa Watch that improvements in labor practices since 1992 would likely result in a continuation of Malawi's GSP benefits.

Members of Congress were active on Malawi during the year. A letter signed by ten Senators was sent to President Banda on March 5 to protest Chihana's continued detention. Also in March, Senators Kennedy, Kassebaum, Simon and Spectre introduced a resolution condemning the incarceration and harassment of dissidents and the restrictions on freedoms of speech, press and assembly. The resolution, which was not passed because it was overtaken by the referendum itself, was nevertheless important in sending a strong message of support to the Malawian opposition.

The Work of Africa Watch

Africa Watch's work consisted of writing letters to the Malawi government regarding human rights issues relevant to the referendum. A January 11 letter protested the Chihana conviction. Later in January, in light of the government's pledge to respect the U.N. recommendations, Africa Watch wrote to request permission for an Africa Watch mission. Previous requests had been denied, and no reply was received to this letter. In February, Africa Watch protested the arrests of AFORD and UDF members. A letter in late March raised concerns regarding Chihana's health.

Africa Watch also wrote to the U.S. representative of the World Bank in March, urging opposition to loans for Malawi based on Section 701(A) of the International Financial Institutions Act of 1977, which obliges the U.S. to oppose multilateral loans to countries that engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of international human rights.

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