SAHRDN demands the immediate release of Gift Trapence and McDonald Sembereka and calls on the authorities in Malawi to guarantee safety and security of human rights defenders in Malawi

Lilongwe and Johannesburg

March 8, 2020

For Immediate Release

Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN or the Defenders Network) demand the immediate and unconditional release of Gift Trapence and McDonald Sembereka who were arbitrarily arrested this evening, March 8, 2020. SAHRDN calls on the authorities in Malawi to guarantee the safety and security of all human rights defenders in Malawi, including the arrested two and the leaders of Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC). The two were arrested in Lilongwe by Malawi Police, and are believed to have been initially detained at Area 3 Police Station even though they are now believed to have inexplicably been driven to Blantyre. No charges have been leveled against the two. HRDC has been planning more peaceful protests in a bid to force the President to assent to the Electoral reform bill which was recently approved by the Parliament. The arbitrary arrest and detention of the HRDs coincide with the presence of some Israelis believed to be with intelligence background, whose presence in Malawi is yet to be publicly explained despite the public outcry after it emerged that they are in the country at the invitation of the State House officials. As SAHRDN we have reasonable apprehension and fear for the lives of the arrested Human Rights Defenders given that anything is possible to be done against them while detained including torture, inhuman and other degrading treatment as well as possibilities of slow poisoning. This is more so, in the context where the President of Malawi, H.E. Peter Arthur Mutharika has publicly declared HRDC as a terrorist organization, and at a rally today, the President is alleged to have instructed Police and members of his Democratic People’s Party to come hard on HRDC leadership.

While most human rights defenders who have been arrested in the past, including the two, have been charged under section 181 of the Penal code with “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace” it is feared, following the unfortunate statements from President Mutharika, that HRDC members will be charged with treason. Gift Trapence and McDonald Sembereka have been organising peaceful demonstrations demanding the resignation of Jane Ansah, the Chairperson of Malawi Electoral Commission for alleged irregularities in the conduct of elections held on 21 May 2019. With the constitutional court ruling, nullifying the last election, political tensions have been rising, and the civic space, which is the oxygen for citizen voices shrinking. 

SAHRDN reminds authorities in Malawi to respect their own constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998, which recognises the legitimacy of the activities of human rights defenders, their right to freedom of association and to carry out their activities without fear of reprisals. In particular, Article 5: “For the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: (a) To meet or assemble peacefully” and Article 12 (2): “The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threat, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”

Gift Trapence is a human rights defender and deputy chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) which promotes citizen participation and organises peaceful demonstrations denouncing alleged irregularities in the presidential elections in May 2019.

Reverend MacDonald Sembereka is a human rights defender and coordinates 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.

For more information please contact Washington Katema the Regional Programmes Manager at Washington Katema wkatema@southernafricadefenders.africa or +27736202608

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