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Arrest of human rights official part of larger crackdown

UPDATE: New presidential broom sweeps clean information ministry, national broadcaster (MISA, 11 April 2012)

(Freedom House/IFEX) - Washington, March 19, 2012 - The arbitrary arrest of John Kapito, chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, is yet another alarming example of the rapidly deteriorating environment for human rights defenders in Malawi, according to Freedom House.

Mr. Kapito was detained on March 16 on allegations that he was involved in “printing and distributing seditious materials,” including t-shirts that insult President Bingu wa Mutharika. A search of Kapito's home uncovered no such materials. He was interrogated for hours and consistently denied legal representation before he was ultimately released on Sunday. There is widespread speculation that Mr. Kapito was arrested in order to prevent him from testifying at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at which Malawi's final human rights report will be presented as a part of the Universal Periodic Review process.

“This blatant attempt to silence the last constitutional body in Malawi capable of providing relief to the victims of human rights abuses is unfortunately but one of many increasingly authoritarian moves by President Bingu wa Mutharika,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. “Malawian citizens must be able to speak out without fear of arrest or detention. Freedom House calls upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms that are enshrined in Malawi's constitution.”

The Mutharika government has been attempting to suppress the publication of a Human Rights Commission report that examines the July protests in which 19 people were killed. The document reportedly concludes that gross human rights violations were perpetrated directly by the Mutharika government. Kapito has encountered repeated threats and intimidation from state authorities during the past several months, and prior to his arrest had his house and car searched by authorities.

The Malawian government has a history of aggressively clamping down on civil society, human rights defenders, and independent lawyers. Last week, authorities released a statement threatening media and civil society for “insulting” the president, relying on the Names and Emblems Act, an arcane piece of colonial legislation used to justify government interference. Last year, President Mutharika pledged to “smoke out” instigators of the country's popular unrest, claiming that civil society leaders and dissenters are being “led by Satan.” This month, civil society organizations called for Mutharika to resign or to hold a referendum within the next 90 days.

Malawi is ranked Party Free in Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Partly Free in Freedom of the Press 2011.

MORE INFORMATION:

Swearing in of vice president a positive step for transition, says Freedom House (Freedom House, 9 April 2012)

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