(This report covers the period January-December 1997)   Trade unionists were arrested during a nationwide strike, many of whom were prisoners of conscience. Harsh prison conditions led to more than 100 deaths in custody. The president commuted all death sentences in July and pledged not to carry out any executions. In February Malawi's former president for life Hastings Kamuzu Banda, his companion Cecilia Kadzamira, opposition Malawi Congress Party (mcp) figure John Tembo, and two others were charged with defrauding the government of mk137 million (us$9.13 million). The High Court of Malawi ruled in May that charges against them should be dropped. In April the opposition mcp and Alliance for Democracy (aford) ended their nine-month parliamentary boycott. In July Malawi's Supreme Court upheld the 1995 acquittal of former president Banda on charges of conspiring to murder four politicians in 1983. In November former president Banda died and was buried with state honours. President Bakili Muluzi demanded a public apology from the mcp for the atrocities committed during its rule. In July trials began of 64 prisoners charged with murder, which carries a mandatory death penalty. By the end of the year, at least 10 had been sentenced to death, but their sentences were scheduled to be commuted to life imprisonment. A review process cleared a court backlog of about 1,000 outstanding cases of murder, at least one dating back to 1984. In April civil servants – including doctors, nurses, teachers and police – went on a six-week strike in protest at the government's failure to implement an agreed pay increase. The strike was declared illegal by the government, and police used tear-gas, truncheons and police dogs to break up peaceful gatherings of striking civil servants, resulting in injuries to some. More than 30 trade union leaders were arrested, including Civil Servants Trade Union Vice-President Mike Gondwe, on charges of breaching the peace or using language likely to cause violence. Many were prisoners of conscience. By the end of the year they had all been released pending trial. In July the government disclosed that, on average, three prisoners were dying every day at Malawi's main prison in Zomba town. According to the authorities, lack of medical care contributed to almost 150 deaths, which were mainly due to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. Some 5,500 prisoners were held in other prisons, many in equally poor conditions. President Muluzi announced in July, after meeting an Amnesty International delegation, that he had commuted all 10 existing death sentences and that he would not sign any orders of execution while in power. In August the Malawian authorities announced a voluntary repatriation exercise to encourage refugees from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (drc) to return to their countries. A heavy police presence at Dzaleka refugee camp near Lilongwe created panic among the Rwandese refugees, causing many to flee. Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Malawian Government began individual screening of up to 100 Rwandese refugees, many of whom did not want to return. The main objective of the screening seemed to be to identify any who had participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Amnesty International was concerned that the unwillingness to return on the part of some refugees may have been misinterpreted. Amnesty International wrote to President Muluzi in April about the excessive use of force by police breaking up demonstrations by striking civil servants and the arrests of prisoners of conscience. In July an Amnesty International delegation met President Muluzi to discuss abolition of the death penalty. In August Amnesty International visited Dzaleka refugee camp and spoke with Rwandese and Congolese refugees, as well as Malawian government officials. Some refugees said that they felt intimidated into signing voluntary repatriation forms. Malawian officials conducted a further review of refugee status and assured Amnesty International that refugees who did not want to return would not be forcibly repatriated. In August Amnesty International sent President Muluzi its recommendations on draft National Human Rights Commission legislation. The organization also expressed concern about legislation limiting the Ombudsman's activities and allowing government officials to restrict access to information. Amnesty International asked the government to ensure the safe repatriation of Zambian opposition politicians John Chinula and William Banda.

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