July 22, 2011

Protesters killed during anti-government riots

More than 18 people have been killed in two days of public unrest, one of the biggest anti-government protests in sub-Saharan Africa this year. The protests, sparked by accelerating fuel shortages, rising prices and high unemployment, have seen calls for president Bingu wa Mutharika to step down.

Health ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali confirmed ten deaths in the northern cities of Karonga and Mzuzu, where protesters ransacked the offices of Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive party (DPP). Eight more people died in the capital Lilongwe and the southern commercial town Blantyre, after police and troops fired teargas to disperse crowds demanding that Mutharika quit. “These figures are based on those casualties that are coming through to the hospitals,” Chimbali said. “Some died in hospital, while some were brought by police already dead.” A further 41 people were injured, six critically, he added.

As riot police confronted groups of young men in the capital, Mutharika took to the airwaves to appeal for calm, saying he was happy to hear the grievances of opponents who accuse him of ignoring civil liberties and ruining the economy. Mutharika, who came to power in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009, vowed to “ensure peace using any measure I can think of.” He demanded of the protesters: “If you break shops and banks, will you have fuel? You demonstrated yesterday and throughout the night until today, but is there fuel today because of the demonstrations? I think God will do something to help us, will bless us, because these people are not being led by God, they are being led by Satan.” But his words had little effect as offices and vehicles of the ruling party were torched. Scores of shops owned by locals and foreigners were looted, including some owned by Chinese expats. The police hit back hard, using live ammunition and killing at least four people on Thursday.

According to Amnesty International, eight journalists were beaten by police during Wednesday’s protests, and a female radio reporter was seriously wounded. Amnesty researcher Simeon Mawanza said the president’s regime was becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices. Elections are not due again in Malawi until 2014, and Mutharika is barred from seeking a third term. The fierce crackdown is likely to intensify public anger against president Mutharika. The campaign against him is led by a coalition of 80 groups which claim that Malawi is facing its worst shortages in 47 years of independence and is turning into an “autocratic kleptocracy”. The pressure has intensified this year since Britain, the country's biggest donor, suspended aid to the country. This followed a diplomatic row over a leaked embassy cable referring to Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism” that led to the expulsion of Britain’s ambassador to Lilongwe. In response, Britain expelled Malawi’s representative in London and suspended aid worth $550m over the next four years.

In the meantime, the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) said in an open statement on the protests, it regretted strongly condemned the beating of human rights defenders and media personnel- among others and the issuing of an injunction against a duly accepted demonstration by lawyer Mathews on the 19th of July 2011 which resulted in loss of lives and property. MCTU would like to call on the authorities including Malawi Law society to investigate the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of this injunction with a view to bring the lawyer concerned to account and justice delivered. The Congress further appealed to the authorities to investigate and bring to book all those responsible for looting as this was not the objective of the march. Inparticular it called "on the Inspector General and Minister responsible for internal security besides other national institutions/authorities to investigate and bring to book Police officers who went over woyera parish wall and later beat unarmed, peaceful civil society leaders, journalists, political party officials and ordinary citizens, besides the shooting to death of ordinary citizens in the north, the use of tear gas and other injuries inflicted by the Police who were under order to protect the demonstrators." Furthermore, the MCTU called on the Head of State and those in authority to critically look at the statement from the demonstrators- on behalf of all Malawians, in order to move forward as a nation, the statement further emphasised. (Sadocc/sapa/ACTSA)

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