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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 17th Vigil postponed

Today's planned vigil by civil society leaders has been called off amidst interventions by international organisations and the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) whom have called for dialogue between the Civil Society Organisations (CSO’s) and the government. In addition there was some confusion as to whether an injunction which had been in place for the July 20th protests, which had turned violent resulting in the detahs of at east 19 people, had been renewed on the eve of the planned August 17th vigil. The previous injunction had expired on July 21st and this new application was supposed to have been obtained by the 1st of August according to the Daily Times (Which I have found to be the most balanced newspaper here).  Representatives from a number of civil society groups attended the court proceedings along with opposition parties whom had backed the vigil saying that the President had not addresseed the issues which faced the country.

The president had spend the weekend traveling the country mobilising police officers in advance of the vigil. The President, Bingu wa Mutharika, had announced that he was forming an independent commission of inquiry into the July killings on August 10th but his stance had become ever more confrontational over the past number of day and I think there is very little doubt that the vigil could have spilled over into violence. The President had reportedly told demonstration organisers that he would “meet them on the streets” if they went ahead with the vigils. I would tentatively welcome this peaceful dialogue but would be somewhat pessimistic (like a lot of Malawians) about how it will turn out, although a joint communique from the UN facilitated meeting between CSO's and government set out specific steps to move forward yesterday. There are mutterings of the vigil being postponed until the 20th of September, but for now that has not been confirmed.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission also yesterday launched its preliminary findings into their investigation into the assault of civil society activists and journalists which occurred during the demonstration on July 20th at a conference chaired by John Kapito in Lilongwe. They noted that at least 15 persons died from gunshot wounds, two from potential gun shot wounds and one of suffocation.  They also noted that of the 40 casulties registered at two hospitals, Queen Elizabeth and Mzuzu central hospital that 34 were gunshot related. The report has also made recommendations to the President, his government and the Malawi Police Service, calling on them to ensure human rights are respected in all circumstances including in the context of maintaining law and order and that a culture of tolerance should be adopted to avert a repeat of July 20th. Interestingly the reports also called on civil society orgaisations to give dialogue a chance before calling for another demonstration.

Human Rights Watch investigations have already found that on July 20, Malawi police officers responded with excessive or unnecessary lethal force against initially peaceful protests in Malawi’s main cities. Human Rights Watch documented abuses during the protests, including beatings, arbitrary arrests, and unnecessary restrictions on the media and approximately 500 people were arrested. In advance of the postponement of the vigil they had also called for the police in Malawi to use restraint during future protests to avoid repeating the use of excessive and lethal force that had been employed on July 20th. Human Rights Watch have also documented the cases of at least seven unarmed people whom they say were fatally shot by police and eight wounded during the protests, none of whom were actively involved in the riots.

On a final note some people have been saying on Twitter that the vigil has silently taken place today as business is at standstill and there is nobody around the various city centers. This is possibly the only way a peaceful demonstration could take place in the country at the moment, given that despite the vigil being called off the town centers are still filled with police officers and certain protests radio stations have apparently been turned off.

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