25 July 2012

Malawi: Shining a Light on Nation's Darkest Day


July 20th 2011 was the darkest day in a very dark period for Malawi - when twenty innocent protestors were killed by police during mass demonstrations calling for an end to President Bingu wa Mutharika's increasingly repressive and authoritarian policies. More than a year later, a Commission of Inquiry has finally produced its report into the killings - and it is a damning condemnation of the Mutharika government and the police.

When Mutharika appointed the Commission in October 2011, few believed that it would ever produce a report - let alone one that is so critical of the authorities. But Mutharika's death has paved the way for an extremely hard-hitting report, which also includes a host of critical recommendations that would help to prevent a similar tragedy from unfolding again.

First of all, the facts are now clearer. The Commission established that 20 people were killed during the violence - 2 in Blantyre, 7 in Lilongwe, 10 in Mzuzu and 1 in Karonga. Nineteen died from gunshots, while one was suffocated by teargas.

Fifty eight people were injured - mostly due to gunshots or police beatings. While most of the people were killed or sustained injuries when the police tried to quell the public disorder, the Commission established that some victims met their fate while not participating in any of the demonstrations or in any criminal activity.

As for the causes of the violence, disorder and deaths, the Commission lists a number of contributing factors - including poor planning by the organisers and demonstrators failing to abide by the court order not to demonstrate - but it lays the blame squarely at the feet of the authoritarian government and heavy-handed and incompetent police.

According to the report, one of the major factors was the injunction against the march which was obtained by the government. This was 'ill-timed and created an element of mistrust', while police efforts 'to enforce the injunction led to confrontations with demonstrators and the confrontation degenerated into the public disorder'.

And this was far from the police's only failing. The Commission established that the police used excessive force in certain cases. Critically, the report concurs with many eye-witness reports at the time and states categorically that the 'amount of live ammunition used was beyond necessity and resulted into deaths and injuries that could have been avoided. Such use of excessive force is not in tandem with the laws of Malawi and applicable international law.'

In addition, the police also demonstrated lack of sufficient human and material resources as well as lack of crowd management skills.

The Commission also singled out the media for criticism. The State Broadcaster was lambasted for failing to broadcast accurate and balanced information to the public, which was a 'deliberate departure from the truth' and 'only helped to fuel the tension'.

However, private media were also condemned for carrying live coverage of the looting, arson and killings as they unfolded. The Commission believed that this incited violence in other parts of the country and was done in contravention of the Communication Act which prohibits broadcasts that are likely to prejudice public order, safety and tranquillity.

And finally, the Commission also blamed political intolerance, intimidation and threats - all too common during the reign of Mutharika - for fuelling the tensions.

While Joyce Banda's assumption of power has calmed tensions, the Commission still provides a raft of key recommendations to avoid a repeat of July 20th.

Unsurprisingly, the Commission calls for changes to the police force.

It urges the government to 'make sure that the police is equipped with sufficient non-lethal weapons and appropriate equipment for effective control of riots' and that more officers are recruited. And to develop a comprehensive policy and operational guidelines in connection with crowd control and, specifically, on the use of firearms - including better training, which should also cover issues of human rights, negotiation skills and basic first aid skills.

And the Commission stresses that the government must ensure that 'police officers who were responsible for the deaths and injuries are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted where unlawful conduct is established'. Victims should also be compensated.

The Commission also urges the police to strive to be an independent institution and - in a stunning condemnation of its conduct under Mutharika - 'to serve and not to intimidate the public or to act as an arm of a ruling political party'.

But the Commission also understands how important dialogue - something Mutharika did not countenance - can be in avoiding violence. And the recommends that the executive put in place effective dialogue and communication channels, while also respecting freedom of expression and assembly - including 'relevant authorities issuing out approvals to notices without undue delay and without political interference, as long as all legal procedures have been satisfied'.

The Commission also provides some recommendations for the organisers that would lessen the chances of violent confrontation in future. The report urges organisers to familiarise themselves with the law; take into consideration the possibility of the demonstration being cancelled or postponed; have a clear picture of the number of people who will participate for security and other arrangements; and ensure that there are a sufficient number of marshals.

It is a very clear and constructive report that will be welcomed by almost everyone in Malawi - outside of Mutharika's close circle and the police, who can no longer claim that they were not responsible for the tragic events of July 20th 2011.

Supporting links:

Malawi Government

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