Human rights defenders fear for the safety of two prominent political dissidents and LGBTQ rights activists who were arrested March 8 for opposing President Peter Mutharika.
Activists Gift Trapence and the Rev. Macdonald Sembereka have been leading national protests against last year’s election, which was later nullified in court. By court order, another election must be held this spring.
Mutharika is appealing that court order.
Trapence is the leader of the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), the country’s main LGBTI rights organization, and a leader of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), which promotes citizen participation and has led peaceful demonstrations denouncing irregularities in the May 2019 presidential election.
Sembereka is a prominent Anglican priest, activist for LGBTQ rights, AIDS fighter and leader of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), a network of local civil society organisations working on the accountability of government officials and promoting civil and political rights.
Both men were previously arrested in July 2019 in what they said was retaliation for their political activism. They were released three days later when a Malawi court found no reason to hold them over a quickly resolved financial accounting disagreement with a United Nations agency.
After the latest arrests, the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN), issued a statement expressing “reasonable apprehension and fear” for the lives of Trapence and Sembereka because “anything is possible to be done against them while they are detained, including torture, inhuman and other degrading treatment as well as poisoning.”
Amnesty International described the two men’s arrests as part of a pattern of threats, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders:
Malawi: Authorities escalate crackdown with arrests of rights activists
Malawian authorities have mounted a crackdown on dissent ahead of the general election rerun on 19 May by arresting two prominent human rights activists, Amnesty International said [March 9].
Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka, who have been vocal critics of last year’s election, have been in police custody since [March 8] after they were arrested in Lilongwe on 8 March for threatening to march to the State House. An arrest warrant has been issued against a third activist, Timothy Mtambo. The activists are linked with a local Non-Governmental Organization, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC).
“The arrests of Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka are deeply troubling, coming amidst the highly charged political environment ahead of the election rerun. Many human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, including by President Arthur [Peter] Mutharika and senior leaders of his party,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
The three men have been targeted for mobilising people to protest against the election. In August 2019, Timothy Mtambo narrowly escaped harm after three petrol bombs were thrown into his compound. One hit and torched his car, while the second was thrown at the gate and the third narrowly missed his house.
“The latest arrests are part of a well-orchestrated campaign aimed at intimidating and harassing activists. It sends the chilling message that they will be punished for exercising their human rights,” said Deprose Muchena.
Last week, the HRDC called on President Mutharika to assent to the new legislation that has been passed in parliament on the conduct of elections due to be held on 19 May, among others. The coalition threatened to march to the State House on 25 March if President Mutharika continued to delay assenting to the law and carrying out the necessary electoral reforms.
At the weekend, President Mutharika warned Mtambo and his leadership team at the HRDC that they would be dealt with if they marched to the State House. The president mentioned Mtambo, Trapence and Sembereka by their names.
The Office of the Inspector General issued a statement earlier today, accusing the three activists of inciting people to break the law by calling on the public to march to the State House during their press conference on 6 March 2020.
Top Civil Society Leaders arrested in Malawi crackdown
… Since the Constitutional Court judgment in February 2020, tensions in Malawi have increased as government prevaricates on what to do about the judgment and the discredited head of the Electoral Commission, Jane Ansah, resists calls to step down. As a result the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), and others, were planning a “citizen’s electoral justice march” to the State House on 25 March.
However, it seems President Peter Mutharika has decided his patience with freedom of speech and political assembly is over. On Sunday he called the HRDC a “terrorist network” and earlier on the same day at a political rally of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Secretary General, Grizedar Jeffrey, was filmed warning Timothy Mtambo (another leader of HRDC who survived an assassination attempt last year): “We want to warn you. Enough is enough. A female witch is more dangerous than a male wizard. When a female witch wants to deal with you, she will simply kill you.”
Although Mtambo has not yet been arrested, a statement issued on Monday morning by the Office of the Inspector General of the Malawi Police ominously describes him as “on the run”. It also claims that the three are being arrested for statements they made at a press conference on 6 March: “By inciting people to seal the State Residences on 25th March 2020, the three committed an offence under section 124 of the Penal Code”, it says. The statement promises that “the nation will be continuously updated on any development”.
In this charged context, on Sunday night the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN), based in Johannesburg, issued a statement expressing “reasonable apprehension and fear” for the lives of Trapence and Sembereka, pointing out that anything is possible to be done against them while they are detained, including torture, inhuman and other degrading treatment as well as poisoning.
The SAHRDN points to the inexplicable presence in Malawi of Isareli security operatives “in the country at the invitation of State House officials”.
At 11.53pm on Sunday night the HRDC also issued a statement, signed by its national co-ordinator and four regional chairperson, in which they said:
“Knowing the unprofessional history of especially the Malawi police services and their obsequious knee-bending to power against their own mandate as a public institution created to protect and serve all who reside in Malawi, it is not lost on us that our illegally detained colleagues and comrades could be tortured, brutalised and even worse, permanently silenced.”
“Attempts on HRDC leadership’s and members’ lives have been numerous over the past several months due to the important and critical work we help lead in order to better our society and country: from electoral justice, to demonstrations against the rape and abuse of women by the same police, to advocacy against the abductions and murders of people with albinism, and a slew of other governance issues such as anti-corruption activism and the routine abuse of public money and resources.”
The statement calls the regime “monsters” who have been exposed and that “violence is the last resort of a coward”.
Sembereka and Trapence were arrested in Lilongwe but have been moved to Blantyre. At the time of writing they had not yet been charged. However, SAHRDN also expressed fear that in the light of Mutharika’s statements they fear they may be charged with treason. It calls for solidarity across the region, including from South Africa, and for people to condemn the detentions.
The Daily Maverick published this update on March 10:
In the last 24 hours activists and lawyers have managed to visit arrested HRDC leaders Gift Trapence and Macdonald Sembereka in prison. They are reported to be in good health. This morning (10 March) after an application brought on behalf of the HRDC leaders, the High Court in Malawi ordered that the Malawi police “immediately return” HRDC leaders Trapence and Sembereka to Lilongwe, where they were originally arrested, and that their case be dealt with by the Lilongwe court. They also ordered that Timothy Mtambo, for whom a warrant has been arrested and who is still considered “on the run”, may not be transferred to Blantyre or any city other than Lilongwe “after he surrenders himself.” Human rights activists in Malawi and internationally continue to monitor the case closely.