(Johannesburg) - The government of Malawi should open a prompt, independent, and transparent investigation into the killings of several peaceful demonstrators, Human Rights Watch said today. The deaths resulted from the security forces' apparent excessive use of lethal force during largely peaceful demonstrations and some rioting on July 20 and 21, 2011. Demonstrators were protesting deteriorating economic conditions, fuel shortages, and increasing political repression.
Malawian rights activists told Human Rights Watch, and international media have reported, that security forces fired live ammunition at protesters, many of whom were unarmed, killing a number of protesters in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, the country's three main cities. Human Rights Watch urged the police to use restraint during future protests.
"Witnesses have confirmed that police used not just tear gas but also live lethal force," said Tiseke Kasambala, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to investigate and make the facts public as to exactly when, by whom, and for what reason live ammunition or other lethal force was deployed. Those found responsible for using excessive force should be held to account."
Human Rights Watch also received reports that authorities arrested at least 250 protesters during the demonstrations. Police assaulted several local journalists seeking to cover the demonstrations on July 20, and arrested and detained three local journalists on July 21. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm whether the journalists are still being held or face any charges.
Lawyers representing an independent radio station, Joy Radio, told Human Rights Watch that the state-run Malawi Communications Regulation Authority switched off its signals and those of MIJ FM and Capital Radio for several hours on July 21.
"The authorities should stop muzzling the independent media and journalists should be allowed to operate without fear of intimidation, beatings and arrest," Kasambala said.
A coalition of up to 80 civil society organizations and religious and student groups organized the demonstrations on July 20 in the three main cities to protest shortages of foreign currency and fuel, poor economic conditions and increasing repression by the government of President Bingu wa Mutharika. The situation quickly deteriorated in the capital city, Lilongwe, and the northern city of Mzuzu as rioters started burning, destroying and looting businesses and property belonging to allies of President Mutharika and his party.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some of the protesters destroyed and burned property, apparently in reaction to police efforts to halt the protests. Local civil society activists in Mzuzu said that at least 8 people were killed and scores more, including children, were injured, when security forces fired live ammunition in an attempt to stop the protests.
Police fired live ammunition and teargas at protesters in Lilongwe as well. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the numbers of those killed in Lilongwe and Blantyre. Rioting and looting continued in Lilongwe and Mzuzu on July 21, although no further demonstrations took place.
Health Ministry officials said on July 21 that at least 18 people had died during the demonstrations but did not explain the circumstances of the deaths. Henry Chimbali, the ministry spokesman, told Reuters news agency that 10 people had died in Karonga and Mzuzu, while the rest died in Lilongwe and Blantyre. He confirmed that 41 people throughout the country had been injured, but other sources estimate the number of injured to be much higher.
The police should abide by the United Nations Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Principles call upon law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, to use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
"Citizens have a right to protest peacefully, and the authorities may only use a proportionate amount of force to control violent activities," Kasambala said. "The use of live ammunition against largely peaceful protesters is completely disproportionate and unacceptable."