Police in Malawi said about 76 protesters are expected to appear in court Friday to face charges of unlawful assembly and inciting violence. This follows their arrest Wednesday when protests against the high cost of living led to clashes with police and the looting of shops in the capital, Lilongwe.
The clashes started after the High Court of Malawi granted an injunction to business owners who wanted to block the protesters, fearing property damage.
“So we understand they did not agree with that and they wanted to proceed despite the injunction,” said Harry Namwaza, the deputy spokesperson for the Malawi Police Service. “Now, you will understand that where there is an injunction as law enforcers, we cannot allow an action to proceed. That is contempt of court. So we reasoned with them, but it seems they did not want to listen.”
Namwaza also said the protesters started marching anyway, resulting in clashes with police who tried to stop them.
“They now started blocking the road, they started damaging other people’s shops, stoning cars and causing all sorts of damages in other areas,” he said. “And we fired tear gas and in the course we arrested 76 people who were perpetrating the violence.”
Those arrested include four leaders of the Human Rights Ambassadors group, which organized the demonstrations.
Some rights campaigners accused the police of using excessive force in trying to stop the protest.
“Actually, the mandate of Malawi Police Service is to ensure that they protect the rights and property of Malawians, not to fight them,” said Sylvester Namiwa, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives. “Police should have been there just to provide that necessary security. A lot of those things could have been avoided. So it’s the careless approach in the way we handle the issue, nothing else.”
Namwaza said tear gas was the best weapon available to stop the violence.
“We have rifles, we have tear gas, and we have rubber bullets,” he said. “We assessed each and every situation. So people may give all sorts of comments but what we are saying is that before we start firing tear gas, we assess situations.”
Government spokesperson Gospel Kazako said as much as the government respects people’s rights to hold peaceful demonstrations, it is unfortunate that organizers of Wednesday’s protests defied a court order to stop the planned protests.
“If a court issued an injunction, I think it was very important for those that had organized these demonstrations to comply,” he said. “You cannot be above the law, regardless of who you are.”
Police spokesperson Namwaza said those arrested Wednesday have been charged with inciting violence, unlawful assembly and contempt of court.
Rights campaigner Namiwa said similar nationwide demonstrations are planned for next week Thursday.