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(Johannesburg) – Police in Malawi should use restraint during future protests to avoid repeating the use of excessive and lethal force that killed 19 people on July 20, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Vigils and demonstrations planned throughout the country for August 17 and 18 to commemorate those killed in July and raise concerns about the economy and human rights were indefinitely postponed by organizers on August 16 after a court issued an injunction banning them.

Human Rights Watch investigations found that on July 20, Malawi police officers responded with excessive or unnecessary lethal force against initially peaceful protests in Malawi’s main cities, leaving 19 dead and scores wounded. About 500 people were arrested. Human Rights Watch documented other abuses during the protests, including beatings, arbitrary arrests, and unnecessary restrictions on the media.

“Malawi’s police fired live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators and bystanders on July 20,” said Tiseke Kasambala, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, who visited Malawi to research the events of July 20. “To prevent further bloodshed during protests, Malawi’s security forces should use force only when unavoidable and with restraint.”

Human Rights Watch documented the cases of at least seven unarmed people fatally shot by police and eight wounded during the protests and ensuing riots on July 20. None of these people were actively involved in the riots.

One man described hiding in a public outdoor toilet with a woman and her children trying to avoid the violence when two policemen arrived:

[One] pointed the gun at us and fired….The bullet hit the lady in the shoulder and she dropped the baby she was holding. I jumped to grab the baby and he fired again, hitting me in the thigh, as I fell. The eight-year-old was carrying the other baby and she was also shot in the leg. I later found out that … the woman had died.

On August 10, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika announced that he was forming an independent commission of inquiry into the July killings.

Human Rights Watch called on the Malawi government to ensure the independence of the commission and include foreign experts to provide assistance, including from the African Union and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The government should also set out concrete steps that it will take to ensure that those responsible for serious abuses, regardless of rank, are held to account.

Human Rights Watch also called on protest organizers to take measures to deter violence by participants during demonstrations.

Concerns of future violence were heightened by statements from Mutharika, who said that he would not allow any further demonstrations. He reportedly told demonstration organizers that he would “meet them on the streets” if they went ahead with the vigils and protests.

Organizers initially planned to proceed on August 17 and 18 but postponed the demonstrations when two street hawkers in Blantyre went to the high court to request an injunction against the demonstrations, arguing that it would affect their business. The court granted the injunction, which is being challenged by the protest organizers. At the same time, organizers agreed to participate in a UN-mediated dialogue with the Malawi government.

Malawian security forces should abide by international standards and use restraint in any further protests, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

“President Mutharika should be acting to ensure future protests are peaceful, not inflaming a tense situation,” said Kasambala. “Malawians have a right to peaceful assembly, and the international spotlight will be on the authorities to ensure they don’t trample on this right.”

The Planned Day of Protests on July 20
On July 20, 2011, a coalition of civil society organizations, churches, trade unionists, students, and political activists organized peaceful demonstrations throughout Malawi. The days leading up to the protests were tense. Two days before, witnesses in Blantyre, Malawi’s second-largest city, reported seeing youths from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), known as “cadets,” driving around in a DPP vehicle, wielding machetes and threatening people. Police are not known to have made any investigations or arrests in response to this and other incidents.

The demonstrations were planned to protest deteriorating economic conditions and increasing repression by the Malawi authorities. The organizers planned for demonstrators to congregate at arranged meeting points and then proceed to city civic centers to present a petition to President Bingu wa Mutharika calling on him to address 20 points of concern. However, late on the eve of the demonstrations, a person believed to be acting on behalf of the government or the DPP went to the high court in Lilongwe, the capital, to secure an injunction banning the protests, which a judge granted.

Organizers and demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that many people only became aware of the injunction on the morning of the protests, after people had already started gathering at the meeting points.

Sam Mpasu from the opposition United Democratic Front in Blantyre told Human Rights Watch: “Late in the night we were told that the judge had issued an injunction but most of the people didn’t know and came out on the morning of July 20. When they heard about the injunction there was a sense of frustration and the leaders tried to control the demonstrators.”

Moses Mkandawire, director of the church and society program of the Synod of Livingstonia in Mzuzu, informed Human Rights Watch:

The majority of Malawians heard about the injunction on the 20th in the morning. I had to address the people in Mzuzu and tell them not to demonstrate. As the morning went by with some of us trying to figure out what to do, people started getting impatient. They were calling me saying that we are being delayed.

Several hours went by before lawyers representing the protest organizers got the injunction lifted, but participants said the atmosphere was already very tense. As one person who participated in the Blantyre protests put it:

By the time the injunction was lifted, tempers had flared and the government had mobilized the police. The police were in full riot gear aggressively preventing anyone from marching, and one could see that things could turn violent. The injunction made the whole thing boil over.

Accounts given by victims and witnesses to Human Rights Watch suggest that as long as the injunction still held, the police on several occasions used force to prevent the protests from taking place. Instead of using nonlethal means to prevent the demonstrators from marching, police threw canisters of teargas into peaceful crowds, and churches and other enclosed spaces. The police later fired live ammunition at fleeing protesters and bystanders.

In reaction to police attempts to forcibly prevent them marching, some protesters became aggressive, burning and smashing property and throwing stones. Human Rights Watch did not find any evidence that the protesters were armed with guns or other lethal weapons. Human Rights Watch did, however, document a small number of incidents in which police were injured by pelted stones or beaten by protesters.

Human Rights Watch attempted to contact the government spokesperson and inspector general of police, but was unable to get a response from either. In media reports, Malawian authorities generally denied using live ammunition during the protests. On July 28, presidential spokesperson Heatherwick Ntaba told Voice of America that all those who died during the demonstrations were looters. Multiple witnesses and victims challenged this assertion. Civil society activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that most of the victims of the fatal shootings were not participating in the looting and rioting. Many were bystanders and others demonstrators fleeing for safety.

On July 26, John Namalenga, the police spokesperson for the Central region, which covers Lilongwe, told the Nation newspaper that police might have used live ammunition on July 21, but not on July 20; he also asserted that most of the bullets were blanks. On August 1, Davie Chingwalo, the police spokesperson for the Southern region, which covers Blantyre, in an interview on Al Jazeera also denied the use of live ammunition and argued that the police used rubber bullets.

Human Rights Watch interviews with a doctor who treated the victims in Blantyre and medical personnel who treated victims in Lilongwe indicate that live ammunition was used in the majority of the cases brought to Blantyre's Queen Elizabeth and Lilongwe Central hospitals. Human Rights Watch also viewed post-mortem reports of the nine people killed in Mzuzu, which indicate that the victims died as a result of gunshot injuries.

Police Abuses in Lilongwe
Some of the worst violence took place in the capital city, Lilongwe, on July 20 and 21. Police beat, shot, and arrested scores of people, leaving eight dead.

Demonstrators and other witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there was a heavy police presence in Lilongwe on the morning of the protests. By 7:30 a.m., people were starting to gather at the Lilongwe Community Centre grounds where demonstrators were supposed to meet. Unbeknownst to the crowd, police had stopped and temporarily detained some of the protest organizers, including Peter Chinoko of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Peter Trapence of the Centre for the Development of the People, on the basis that the injunction banned the demonstrations. After an hour, the organizers were released and allowed to proceed to the protests where they informed those gathered that the protests could not proceed until the injunction had been lifted.

According to two protesters, the crowd did not react violently, but chose to wait at the grounds. However, at around 9:15 a.m., police attempted to disperse the crowd and ordered people to go home. Police then severely beat one of the organizers who had attempted to mediate between the crowd and the police. This sparked a violent reaction from the crowd, some of whom started throwing stones at the police. In response, police started firing teargas canisters.

“Once they started beating the guy [the organizer], all hell broke loose,” a witness who saw the ensuing chaos told Human Rights Watch. “The police were firing teargas and beating others mercilessly. We all ran away in different directions. That’s when angry youth started targeting police homes and destroying them around the city as well as property which belonged to government officials and their friends.”

At 2 p.m., organizers who had gathered at a church compound in the city to avoid the confrontations between police and rioters were informed that the injunction against the protests had been lifted. They went to the main gate to inform other demonstrators waiting at the compound. The organizers were stopped by a group of police officers and members of the Police Mobile Force (PMF).

According to journalist Kondwani Munthali, who was present at the compound, one of the PMF officers shouted, “These are the ones causing trouble, deal with them!” Another shouted, “We should kill them now!” The police then started kicking and beating the organizers and journalists who were at the scene with baton sticks and gun butts. Police then briefly detained the organizers before releasing them without charge.

Violence spread to the surrounding areas of Mchesi, Area 49, Area 36, and Falls Estate, and continued into the following day. Throughout June 20 and into the next day, police continued to fire indiscriminately at rioters and bystanders. Human Rights Watch interviewed four victims of gunshot wounds at the Lilongwe Central Hospital. Each of their accounts was corroborated by witnesses, including bystanders.

Cassim A, aged 30, from Area 49, was shot in the hand and thigh and said he saw police kill at least four people. He told Human Rights Watch:

It was around 9 a.m. and I got onto a minibus going into town. They were nine of us in the minibus. We found the roads were blocked with burning tires and we could see the police shooting at protesters and throwing teargas. People were running away. The minibus driver eventually said he couldn’t go on and we all had to get out. A group of us tried to find a safe route to avoid the violence. It was me and three other men as well as a lady with two babies, twins, and a little girl about eight years old.

People were still running and bullets were flying around so we eventually decided to go somewhere and wait out the rioting. We found a toilet and hid there for an hour. Around 10:10 a.m., we saw people running past. Some were throwing stones. And then suddenly we saw a policeman at the entrance to the toilet. He said ‘If there is someone there come out.’ We didn’t answer. Then suddenly we saw a teargas canisters landing on the floor and soon after I felt something zip past and graze my thumb. It hit one of the men in the neck and he collapsed and that’s when I knew the policeman had fired into the toilet.

The same policeman then said, “Get out or I will fire again.” I came out together with the lady and her babies and the girl. We were scared. Then he asked “So why were you hiding?” Another policeman joined him and he said we should be allowed to go but the other policeman got upset and then pointed the gun at us and fired. We were still at a bit of a distance. The bullet hit the lady in the shoulder and she dropped the baby she was holding. I jumped to grab the baby and he fired again, hitting me in the thigh, as I fell. The eight-year-old was carrying the other baby and she was also shot in the leg.

I later found out that the other three men were all shot and killed and the woman had died. I only discovered this when they brought a Red Cross vehicle to take me to the hospital and also brought in two bodies. I recognized one of the men and the woman, both dead. That’s when I told the Red Cross people that they should look for two more people in the toilet. They later found me in hospital and told me that they had found the two other men dead in the toilet from gunshot wounds. As we were running away I also witnessed a small boy around five being shot as he was fleeing with his parents. I hear that he also died but I’m not sure.

Samson M, 18, from Area 36, was shot by police in Falls Estate on July 21. He told Human Rights Watch:

I left my home in the morning to do piecemeal work at a depot when I saw the rioting. I decided to leave and go to a shebeen [bar] to drink. As we were at the shebeen, we saw people outside running around, looting and breaking property. We decided things were getting violent and decided to leave the shebeen. As we were leaving a group of police came out and told us to sit down. They accused us of looting and started hitting us with batons and then one police said they should just shoot us in the legs to stop us from running around looting. They threw us back and one of them started firing. One of my friends was shot in three places, both legs and his head. He died on the spot. I was shot in both legs and then they left.

Police Abuses in Blantyre
Two people were killed and scores more were injured after police shot and beat people during protests in Blantyre, Malawi’s main commercial city, on July 20. According to witnesses, the police provoked riots by throwing teargas canisters directly at people gathered for the march, as they were waiting to hear whether the injunction had been lifted, as well as at bystanders.

“Police became violent and there was no coordination between the police,” one protester told Human Rights Watch. “The police were lobbing teargas into homes. It was as if the police were deliberately provoking a reaction. Many of the people who were shot were not marchers, they were mere bystanders.”

The aggressive police reaction led to rioting in the Blantyre city center and nearby neighborhoods, with rioters looting and destroying shops and other property. Anthony Kasunda, acting chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, who was at the protests, told Human Rights Watch: “The police handling of the situation left a lot to be desired. It was not clear why they threw the teargas where I was standing with colleagues. No one was looting but they still threw teargas at us.”

As the rioting continued into the evening, police failed to distinguish between those participating in the riots and bystanders. Witnesses corroborated accounts that the police reacted to the riots by firing at people trying to flee to safety. The rioting continued into the night with police firing live ammunition at rioters in the high-density neighborhoods of Ndirande, Che Musa, and Bangwe.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a doctor who treated several of the gunshot victims at Queen Elizabeth Central hospital. The doctor confirmed that eight people were admitted with gunshot wounds, including a 17-year-old shot in the abdomen. The doctor told Human Rights Watch that the hospital had also treated several individuals with wounds from alleged beatings by the police.

Witnesses and relatives informed Human Rights Watch that three of those shot and seriously wounded were not involved in the demonstrations or rioting. According to a relative, one of the men was coming from work and met a group of protesters running way. He was shot in the leg as he turned to run away with the crowd.

Police Abuses in Mzuzu
In Mzuzu, police shot and killed nine people on July 20. Violence broke out when police threw teargas at a crowd of people gathered at Katoto Freedom Park who were waiting to hear if the injunction had been lifted and if the march was going ahead. The police shooting sparked a stampede and rioting.

Moses Mkandawire, one of the organizers, told Human Rights Watch: “The crowd was actually sitting on the ground waiting for further information about the demonstrations when all of a sudden one of the policemen at the grounds jumped out of a police vehicle and threw a teargas canister and then another. One of the canisters hit me in the arm. Then the crowd got upset and started throwing stones and some said let us go and destroy the DPP office.”

A church leader who was at the stadium confirmed the reports. He said, “People were sitting around at Katoto Freedom Park waiting to hear from the organizers. From nowhere a police car came and started throwing teargas and that was the beginning of the troubles. Some of the angry youth first targeted DPP offices and cars and then went on looting and breaking things. After DPP the next targets were the Chinese shops.”

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they started hearing gunshots around the city at noon as the looting continued, with rioters targeting shops belonging to Chinese businessmen whom they believed were encouraged by Mutharika to set up shops in the city. Witnesses also confirmed that a number of police were assaulted by rioters. They reported that police used lethal force on numerous occasions to quell the riots, even firing at people in areas where there was no looting taking place.

For example, in one incident, police shot two men at a church compound belonging to the Livingstonia CCAP Synod. Reverend Mwezuwa Banda, who tried to help the two men, told Human Rights Watch:

I was at my offices at the synod and could hear the gunshots. I went outside our offices to see what was happening and I saw two people outside our offices lying in pools of blood. They didn’t have any weapons or stones on them or around them. It seemed the police were now shooting aimlessly. There was no looting going on at the synod and we are not that close to the city center where most of the rioting was taking place. The two men were still alive. The other one was shot in the abdomen and his intestines were exposed. The other one was shot in the back and the bullet appeared to have pierced through his belly. We tried to call for an ambulance but there were no vehicles around. I took the two into my car and rushed them the hospital. I could tell that the one hit from the back wasn’t going to survive. He was breathing very fast. Later on I heard he had died. The one who had his abdomen shot survived and is still hospitalized.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed 15-year-old “Elias B” (not his real name) at Mzuzu hospital:

I was coming from town and I got to a certain building called general boarding when I saw a PMF guy jump out of the car and aim his gun at me. He shot me in the leg and I fell and also broke my arm. An ambulance brought me to the hospital. I was taken to the theatre where they amputated my leg below the knee because the damage was too bad.

Media Censorship and Intimidation, Beatings and Arbitrary Arrests of Journalists
Police also intimidated, beat, and harassed journalists attempting to cover the protests. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, police beat 14 journalists, arrested 3 and harassed 10 more, as they tried to cover the protests in Lilongwe and Blantyre. Journalist Kondwani Munthali from the Nation newspaper was covering the protests in Lilongwe. He described his experiences in the Nation on July 29:

Two journalists were whipped side by side by one officer and we tried to run for our lives. I approached the officer in charge to protect us. He pushed me towards [another] officer with a huge stick and he whipped me at the back. I tried to run through a blocked vehicle and a police woman hit me with a gun butt at the back. My colleague, photographer Amos Gamulira, was trying to climb the wall with another journalist, Isaac Kambwiri, of Capital Radio. A PMF officer came out and attacked him with a gun butt. The two were bleeding profusely as they jumped the fence.

The Malawi authorities also prevented independent radio stations from reporting on the protests. On July 20, the state broadcasting regulator, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authorities (MACRA) made a number of phone calls and eventually faxed letters to independent radio stations, Capital FM, Joy Radio, and Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), directing them to stop live coverage of the demonstrations because they were perpetuating violence, the regulator argued. All three stations denied perpetuating violence and said they were merely reporting on events and warning listeners to avoid areas where the rioting was taking place. Even though all the stations complied with the directive from MACRA, they were put off air the following day, a move that denied Malawians vital information about how to best negotiate a dangerous situation.

Joy Radio station manager Lloyd Zawanda told Human Rights Watch:

On the 21st we were surprised when we went off air at 10:50 a.m. We thought it was a problem with our transmitting station at Mpingwe hill and we checked, but were told by the security guard that six people came, some in police uniform, and others in plain clothes, who asked which transmitter belonged to Joy Radio and then switched it off. We tried to call MACRA and they denied that this happened. We stayed off air for six hours and then suddenly we were back on air without any explanations. Three other radio stations went off air. On July 26 MACRA summoned us to their offices. The meeting was chaired by their director general and two other officials. They told us that they were acting under the instructions of the security forces and they had to switch us off. They said we hadn’t complied with their instructions not to air live broadcasts. They were very autocratic and threatened us that they had the powers to suspend our license because we were deemed to be perpetuating violence.

In addition, police in Lilonge allegedly beat three journalists working for Joy Radio – Rebecca Chinjeka, George Mkandawire, and Enock Balakasi – as they attempted to cover the demonstrations.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to Chikondi Juma, acting head of news and current affairs for Capital FM, who said that the radio station was also taken off air on July 21. On July 30, MACRA also summoned Juma to a meeting where she was warned about the station’s broadcasts on the July protests.

Juma told Human Right Watch: “Things have completely changed with regards to how we operate. We have begun self-censorship. Capital FM used to be free, but we are no longer doing the work the way people expect us. In our programming we are afraid to bring up topics that would look like we are inciting people as MACRA said we were doing on July 20. We can’t even cover topical issues if they are political.”

Police also allegedly beat Capital FM journalist Isaac Kambwiri.

“He was badly beaten and had a big cut in his head which required stitches,” Juma told Human Rights Watch. “He still isn’t reporting for work.”

On July 16, four days before the protests, seven masked men carrying hammers and machetes destroyed a vehicle belonging to ZBS. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge no one was arrested for the incident. A day later, a group of men torched a vehicle belonging to the same radio station.

On August 3, police in Blantyre chased away a journalist from the Nation newspaper as he attempted to cover Mutharika’s visit to inspect property damaged during the July protests.

Anthony Kasunda of MISA told Human Rights Watch: “Our journalists are harassed, beaten and arrested, and are barred from certain events. We struggle to cover political events. We are seen as the enemy and chased from events or threatened with beatings.” 

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