November 8, 2002

Court rejects ban on demonstrations

A time bomb seems to have been set between proponents and critics of a proposal to amend the Constitution to allow the Malawian president to run for a third five-year term following a ruling by the High Court that Malawians have a constitutional right to stage peaceful demonstrations against the unpopular Bill. The ruling overturned the directive by President Bakili Muluzi against demonstrations for or against proposals by his government to lift restrictions on his term of office.

The court at its sitting on October 22, made the ruling in response to a case filed by the civil society headed by the Episcopal Conference of Malawi and the Malawi Council of Churches against a directive by Muluzi that no one should demonstrate for or against the Bill to extend the presidential term after his mandatory two five-year terms expire in 2004. In his ruling, Justice Edward Twea said the citizens of the country had a right to demonstrate in a free environment and that it was the duty of the police to provide protection to citizens participating in such demonstrations.

Muluzi, in his directive made repeatedly at public rallies, warned those who intended to demonstrate against the tabling of the Bill of serious unspecified consequences. The president predicted trouble if demonstrations were allowed, saying such a situation could degenerate into chaos, and that the army and the police would not sit idle and watch. Earlier, in September, Muluzi challenged would-be demonstrators, accusing unnamed organisations which he said were trying to incite university students and street vendors to stage demonstrations against the constitutional proposal. Addressing a mass rally in the populous Ndirande township in Blantyre, which he described as the Democratic Republic of Ndirande, Muluzi in a highly charged speech, accused those contemplating to demonstrate against the issue including church leaders of trying to intimidate members of parliament and infringing upon their constitutional rights as representatives of their constituents.

The issue attracted more opposition through statements and press statements issued by the Church, human rights organisations and the civil society, urging parliamentarians to refrain from being intimidated and to say "no" if the Bill was tabled in parliament. In a special broadcast to the nation on October 15, Muluzi urged parliamentarians to concentrate on "crucial issues affecting the nation" such as widespread hunger, HIV/AIDS rather than the presidential term of office. Critics maintained that the message had no substance as it did not indicate whether the controversial Bill would be tabled or not.

Justice Minister and Attorney General Henry Phoya who was expected to present the Bill in parliament, said he too was going by the president's directive that other matters should be given more preference than the controversial Bill. At least three senior members from the ruling United Democratic Front UDF have challenged the proposed Bill. They are Jan Sonke, a Malawian citizen of Dutch descent who represents Blantyre Kabula constituency and Joe Manduwa of Mwanza East constituency. The two nearly lost their seats in parliament when the Speaker Sam Mpasu declared their seats vacant on claims that they crossed the floor by publicly declaring their opposition to the Bill and attending a meeting of the newly formed Forum for the Defence of the Constitution FDC whose main aim is to fight against changing the Constitution to suit individual whims. Sonke and Manduwa were saved by a court injunction filed on their behalf by former Cabinet Minister Kassim Chilumpha who is a practicing lawyer.

Human rights groups have welcomed the ruling by the court that people have a basic freedom to express their opinions through peaceful demonstrations as guaranteed in the country's Constitution. Olen Mwalubunju, an executive member of the Malawi Human Rights Consultative Committee, an umbrella body of human rights movements in the country said: "The Constitution of the country provides a right to freedom of expression . No one, not even the president, has the power to stop people from expressing themselves in matters of national concern". Catholic priests of the archdiocese of Blantyre asked members of parliament to desist from accepting favours from the ruling United Democratic Front to support the bid for a presidential third term.

Despite of the ruling, the Police dispersed a demonstration against the third presidential term in Blantyre on the morning of November 1, where violence interrupted a planned public demonstration. At least three people were reported injured from knife wounds allegedly inflicted by youth wing members of the ruling United Democratic Front known as Young Democrats. Among the injured was a high ranking official of the National Democratic Alliance NDA whose leader, Brown Mpinganjira, has vowed to oust the Muluzi regime. An official, Mike Mezalumo, was seriously injured on the eye and had to go for surgery. The protest was organised by the Forum for the Defence of the Constitution and attracted thousands of people opposed to the extension of the two five-year presidential tenure. The demonstration ended in disarray shortly after commencement from the old Town Hall in Blantyre, when the police opened fire and tossed teargas to disperse a looming clash between the marchers and groups of armed government supporters who had gathered at the clock tower, a kilometre away. (African Church Information Service)


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