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Arson attacks target rights activists

(MISA/IFEX) - 16 September 2011 - Civil society groups in Malawi have accused President Bingu wa Mutharika's administration of muzzling freedom of expression following an alleged arson attack on a house belonging to McDonald Sembereka, the acting national coordinator of a group of human rights organizations, the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC).

Sembereka's house was allegedly petrol bombed on Saturday 10 September, by unknown arsonists. The house is located in the Balaka district, Eastern Malawi.

The HRCC Acting National Coordinator is well known for his frankness on various issues of human rights in the country and is one of the leading human rights activists who organized the 20 July mass demonstrations against the deteriorating social, political and economic order in Malawi.

The alleged arson attack follows another mysterious incident where an office belonging to the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) was petrol bombed, destroying office equipment, files and computers. IPI Executive Director, Rafik Hajat, is another outspoken civil rights activist who also actively took part in organizing the 20 July mass demonstrations.

There is widespread speculation and claims from civil society groups that these barbaric acts are being engineered by extremist supporters of President Bingu wa Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), following his call for the party's youth to protect him and the DPP.

Meanwhile, three main opposition parties in the country have added their voices to the condemnation of the arson attack on Sembereka's house. The Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the former governing United Democratic Front (UDF) and the newly-registered People's Party of state vice-president Joyce Banda, are among the parties that have condemned the act, describing it as unfortunate and barbaric.

Responding to claims from civil society organisations over these incidents, Presidential Spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba, who is also the DPP Publicity Secretary, described the claims as untrue. "We are equally surprised and disturbed with the news that Rev. Sembereka's house was torched. It's unfortunate that some people are linking these incidents to the DPP (. . .) these claims are unfounded," he told the state-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).

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