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Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - Malawi

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1993
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - Malawi, 1 January 1993, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca5e1e.html [accessed 22 August 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 1992

Human Rights Developments

In 1992, Malawi experienced a surge of unprecedented public criticism of the repressive 28-year rule of nonagenarian Life-President H. Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Spearheaded by the Catholic and Presbyterian churches, Malawians demonstrated against their government's authoritarian policies and in favor of multiparty democracy.

These protests were met with violent repression and only token concessions. Although Life-President Banda ultimately released several prominent prisoners and agreed to hold a referendum on whether to move the country to a multiparty system, only cursory moves were made to abandon the practice of imprisoning political dissidents and suppressing the freedom of the press. On October 20, Orton Chirwa, one of Malawi's most prominent political prisoners, died in Zomba Prison. His wife, Vera Chirwa, remains in detention. In November, government officials declared the opposition movement Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) illegal, and arrested hundreds of its supporters.

The protests were launched on March 8, when the country's seven Catholic bishops issued a letter containing the first public criticism of the government since independence in 1964. The letter expressed concern about a "growing gap between the rich and the poor" and called for greater popular participation in politics, and expanded freedom of expression and association. The letter noted that the bishops could not "ignore or turn a blind eye to our people's experience of unfairness and injustice, for example those who ... are imprisoned without knowing when their cases will be heard."

The reading of the bishops' letter at Sunday masses throughout the country was met with applause and tears. Young Malawians danced with joy in the aisles and copies of the letter began to circulate widely.

The government reacted with predictable harshness. On March 10, the police interrogated the bishops for eight hours. The government media condemned the letter, which was quickly banned. An extraordinary meeting of the Malawi Congress Party was called to discuss the letter, and the party chair for the city of Blantyre, Charles Kampulusa, reportedly said that if the government had known what the bishops were going to say, they would have been killed. Alleged tape-recordings of the meeting obtained by AFORD revealed that government officials discussed how to kill the bishops.

The bishops' letter sparked unprecedented student protests against the government. At Chancellor College, in Zomba, on March15, a group of students held a demonstration to show their support for the bishops. The next day, following a confrontation between the students and the police, the Registrar of Students decided to close the college to avoid violence – an unprecedented step.

After hearing about the closure of Chancellor College, students at Blantyre Polytechnic decided to demonstrate in solidarity. On March 17, after students stoned stores owned by President Banda's company, Press Holdings, the police arrested up to 70 students. Six students are believed to have been beaten and tortured to death in police custody.

Although the threats to the Catholic bishops were never carried out, on April 17, Bishop John Roche, an Irish citizen who had lived in Malawi for 20 years, was deported, upon 24 hours' notice. A few days earlier, the government also revoked the residence papers of another Irish priest, Patrick O'Malley, as he was returning to Ireland on sick leave. A Presbyterian minister in Mzuzu, Rev. Aaron Longwe, was also twice arrested and released, in April and May.

The next wave of anti-government protests followed the arrest of unionist and pro-democracy activist Chakufwa Chihana. On April 6, after attending a meeting of Malawian exiles in Lusaka, Zambia, Chihana returned to Malawi with the intention of leading the campaign of the Interim Committee for a Democratic Alliance in Malawi. As he disembarked from the plane at Lilongwe International Airport and attempted to read a pro-democracy speech, Chihana was immediately grabbed by four plainclothes policemen, swept into a waiting car, and detained incommunicado.

On May 6, the most serious anti-government protests yet broke out in the city of Blantyre, as 30,000 striking textile workers were joined by other anti-government protesters. The demonstrators reportedly looted stores thought to be owned by President Banda. The police responded with bullets and teargas. On May 7, demonstrations spread to Lilongwe. Three thousand people gathered at the High Court where Chihana was to be produced for a bail hearing. When the government failed to produce him, the crowd reportedly began looting stores and overturning cars, and burned the MCP's Lilongwe headquarters.

Although the precise number of casualties is not available, at least 38 people are believed to have been killed. By May 8, after a shaken Life-President Banda appeared on national radio and appealed for Malawian citizens "to behave like ladies and gentlemen," the situation in Lilongwe and Blantyre was calm. However, demonstrations later spread to tea and tobacco plantations in rural areas, where workers demanded higher wages and a change in government.

Government repression of perceived dissidents continued. On May 16, businessman Krishna Achutan was detained after pleading on BBC radio for the release of his father-in-law, Aleke Banda, a prominent political prisoner who had been detained in January 1980. (Achutan was eventually released on bail on July 13.) In June, reports began to surface of widespread arrests of people who the government believed to be copying and disseminating anti-governmentliterature or receiving faxes from outside the country. Police are believed to have conducted sweeps of city offices searching for the Catholic bishops' letter and targeting in particular offices with photocopy or fax machines. Amnesty International reported that prisoners were tortured and kept in severely overcrowded cells: in one case a released detainee stated that 285 prisoners were kept in a cell measuring five by four meters, with one prisoner dying every two nights. A report in the South African newspaper The Weekly Mail stated that diplomats in Malawi estimated that as many as 2,000 people had been arrested.

By June, though, in response to increasing pressure from donor countries, the government began to release some well known political prisoners. On June 12, eight prominent prisoners, including Machipisa Munthali, were released. Munthali, who had been arrested in 1965 and held at Mikuyu prison, was believed to be one of Africa's longest serving political detainees. On July 10, Aleke Banda was released along with ten others. After his release, Banda stated that he had been kept in a windowless cell in Mpyumpyu prison. He said that he was in good health, but was astonished at the sight of stars: he had not seen them for 12 years.

The government defended its human rights record and instituted some minor reforms. On July 5, Life-President Banda stated that "detention has been used to protect national security and not to abuse human rights" and that "physical torture of prisoners is not our official policy." Banda stated that in the future, all prisoners would be charged and tried. The Life-President also stated that he had invited the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit Malawi's prisons, that he would recommend changes to the policy of enforced contributions to the MCP, and that freedom of the press and association existed. However, he also declared that political parties "are against the laws of this country" and that "detention is necessary" to avoid civil war.

Parliament then dutifully ratified several changes in the country's repressive legislation. On August 24, it approved the creation of a Detention Review Tribunal, to hear appeals of prisoners who were detained without charge, and moved to modify the Penal Code to limit the maximum sentence for sedition from life to five years' imprisonment.

These steps fall far short of needed changes. The existing definition of sedition remains unchanged, and the press is legally barred from publishing anything likely "to undermine the authority of, or public confidence in, the government." The Detention Review Tribunal is to be led by a judge appointed by the Minister of Justice (who happens to be Life-President Banda) and its rulings are only advisory. The repeal of the 1964 Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, which allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial and arrest by not only the police but also the Malawi Young Pioneers, would be a far more significant step.

The actions of the Malawian government gave lie to its rhetoric of change. Shortly after approving changes to the security regulations, the government once again attacked the church. On August 25, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church, in an open letterto Life-President Banda, asked him to release immediately all political prisoners, institute a referendum on multiparty democracy, and established a broad-based national commission to consider political changes. The Presbyterians and other religious leaders also planned to hold a rally on August 30 in Mzuzu.

The government responded by arresting ten church leaders and declaring the meeting to be unlawful. It singled out for blame Presbyterian minister Aaron Longwe, stating that "misguided people like him should not be allowed to confuse the people." Although the ten church leaders were soon released, an Irish priest, Father Thomas Leary, who had been in Malawi for 20 years, was arrested, held for 20 hours and then deported. Reverend Longwe was arrested on August 31 at St. Peter's Cathedral and held under the Preservation of Public Security regulations for his role in planning the rally at Mzuzu.

Chakufwa Chihana spent three months in detention without charge. After the government failed to present him in court several times, Justice James Kalaile ordered his release on bail on July 10. Chihana was released the next day and stated that he had been kept in solitary confinement and refused reading material. For more than a month, he reported, he was kept in leg irons and repeatedly interrogated.

Only three days later, Chihana was charged with three counts connected with the issuance of seditious publications. The following day, as Chihana and his wife reported to a police station in Lilongwe, in compliance with his bail conditions, the police detained him again, and held him incommunicado until August 16, when his lawyer, Bazuka Mhango, was allowed to visit him and confirmed suspicions that Chihana had been arrested due to an interview he had given to the BBC shortly after his release in July. On September 8, he was charged with two further counts of sedition and released on bail.

When Chihana's case was brought to court, in October, crowds of as many as 30,000 surrounded the High Court in Lilongwe to show their support. After the first two weeks of trial, these crowds were met by harassment and beatings by the police and the ruling party's youth wing, the Young Pioneers. At least five people are believed to have died as a result of beatings at the hands of government forces, and many more were arrested. On November 4, Chihana's car was stoned as he was leaving the court and his lawyer, Bazuka Mhango, and a bodyguard were slightly injured. By mid-November, arguments in the case had closed and Chihana was awaiting the judge's verdict.

On October 18, as he attacked dissidents for "spreading all kinds of false allegations," Life-President Banda announced "a referendum on the question of whether people want our present one-party system or want to switch to the multiparty system of government." Banda stated that he was confident that "his people" would "reject the chaos and disunity of multiparty politics" and stated that he hoped to hold the referendum as soon as possible. President Banda also stated that international observers couldmonitor the referendum and that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would be invited to inspect Malawi's prisons.

Two days later, however, Orton Chirwa, one of Malawi's most famous political prisoners, died in detention. He and his wife, Vera, had been abducted from Zambia in 1981. In 1983, they were convicted of treason and sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted by President Banda to life imprisonment. They were tried before a "traditional court" which did not conform with basic international norms: for example, they were not allowed a defense lawyer or the right to call witnesses on their behalf.

Although the cause of Orton Chirwa's death is unclear, he was 73 years old and had been kept in harsh conditions. A delegation of British lawyers who managed to meet the Chirwas in September found that he was in poor health. He had been tortured and mistreated at various times during his 11 years of imprisonment. As just one example, in October 1992, Chirwa was forced to squat on the floor for two days with arm and leg-irons chained to a metal rod behind his knees. The results of the government's autopsy have yet to be publicly released.

Vera Chirwa is still being held at Zomba Central Prison and was not permitted to attend her husband's funeral. When she and her husband met with the delegation of British lawyers in September 1992, it was the first time she had seen her husband in eight years. In November, her family, which was in Malawi to attend Orton's funeral, was allowed to visit her for 45 minutes. Family members stated that she appeared strong emotionally, but had lost weight and was physically weak.

The Right to Monitor

There are no human rights monitoring organizations in Malawi. Given the government's harsh response to even the most simple political criticism from well established organizations such as the Catholic Church, it is apparent that human rights activity would be extremely dangerous and would be met with immediate suppression.

Actions by the World Bank and Major Donor Countries

In a significant break from the past, Malawi's major donor countries met in Paris in May and decided to freeze most of their bilateral aid to Malawi for fiscal years 1992 and 1993, with the exception of drought and refugee-related assistance. A Malawian request for $74 million in development assistance was refused. A press release at the conclusion of the meeting expressed "deep concern about the lack of progress in the area of basic freedoms and human rights." The donors decided to meet again in six months to determine whether there had been "tangible and irreversible evidence of a basic transformation in the way Malawi approaches these matters, so that there is a fundamental shift in the way human rights in Malawi are viewed."

The World Bank did not follow this example. On June 17, it approved a $55 million loan to Malawi to build a hydroelectric dam. Although World Bank police on the granting of loans requires consideration of "good governance" – a concept broad enough toembrace human rights issues – Bank representatives stated that they were prohibited from considering non-economic factors.

U.S. Policy

In contrast to past years, in 1992 the U.S. government publicly and explicitly criticized the lack of respect for basic human rights in Malawi, and backed this criticism with a substantial reduction in economic assistance. Following the Paris meeting, the U.S. reduced its economic aid to Malawi by one third, to $22 million, and stated that it would make no new aid commitments until its human rights concerns were resolved. In addition, the U.S. voted against the June 17 World Bank loan, on environmental grounds.

On April 6, when Chakufwa Chihana was detained, the United States embassy publicly protested:

The U.S. government views this action by the Malawi government in most serious light and urges the Malawian government to release Mr. Chihana so that he may freely express his political views and undertake political activities.

The U.S. earlier protested the government's reaction to the Catholic bishops' letter and the expulsion of Msgr. John Roche. The U.S. embassy was also reportedly instrumental in coordinating diplomatic pressure on the Malawian government and sent representatives to observe Chihana's trial. United States government officials have assured Africa Watch that Malawi's poor human rights record is consistently brought up in private meetings between U.S. and Malawian officials.

Although Africa Watch welcomes these developments, we believe that the government of Malawi is engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights, in particular because of the continuing use of torture and the degrading treatment of prisoners, and the continuing practice of imprisoning any critic of the government. As a result, Malawi falls under the provisions of U.S. law that mandate a cutoff of all U.S. aid that does not directly benefit the needy.

In the past, Malawi's sheltering of Mozambicans fleeing their country's brutal war has made the country a favorite of international donors. The Malawian government has handled the enormous influx of refugees – currently numbering approximately 950,000 – with generosity and efficiency, and has argued that as a result it deserves assistance from the developed world. However, Africa Watch believes that this hospitality, and the harsh drought that the country is currently facing, should not obscure the government's lack of fundamental progress on human rights and should not impede the cutoff of all assistance except that targeted to meet basic human needs of the refugees and Malawian citizens.

The Work of Africa Watch

On March 18, shortly after Malawi's Catholic bishops were threatened, Africa Watch issued a statement detailing the threatsand other human rights concerns. Africa Watch also called on the U.S. Congress and President Bush to urge the Banda government immediately to cease harassing the bishops, revoke the ban on their letter and permit freedom of the press and assembly. Later, in April, Africa Watch urged Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen and Lewis Preston, the president of the World Bank, to bring up these and other concerns during their meetings with John Tembo, a close associate of Life-President Banda who is believed to exercise day-to-day control over the government.

On June 11, Africa Watch called upon the Executive Directors of the World Bank to vote against the planned $55 million hydro-electric plant loan. Africa Watch noted that this loan did not meet "basic human needs" and was at odds with statements made by the major donor nations reducing their bilateral aid programs.

In July, in a letter to John Tembo, Africa Watch followed up on statements made by Minister Tembo to the House Subcommittee on Africa indicating that he would invite Africa Watch to Malawi. Meetings were requested with Life-President Banda, Tembo and other government officials, and permission to conduct an independent investigative mission to Malawi was sought. No response has been received.

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