Organizers call off Malawi anti-gov't protests

AP News
Posted: Aug 16, 2011 8:13 AM
Organizers call off Malawi anti-gov't protests

Organizers in Malawi on Tuesday canceled plans to hold anti-government protests, weeks after security forces met demonstrations with deadly force and the president vowed to quash any attempt at regime change.

Anti-government demonstrations across Malawi last month came amid worsening economic conditions and complaints about President Bingu wa Mutharika's increasingly autocratic style. At least 19 people were killed by police when the demonstrations degenerated into looting.

Rodgers Newa, a spokesman for the activists who organized protests in July, said at a press conference Tuesday that organizers made the decision because of a court injunction and because of mediation efforts by a U.N. delegation.

No new date was set.

Activists had vowed to hold more demonstrations starting Wednesday unless the president addressed their grievances before Tuesday. Activists have called for a resolution of persistent fuel and foreign exchange shortages, audits of the finances of Mutharika and his Cabinet ministers, and an end to public threats against those with dissenting views.

In an address broadcast live on state media Sunday, Mutharika urged Malawians not to go back to the streets, and said he had had too little time to address a 20-point petition activists presented July 20.

"Do they seriously think all those issues would have been resolved within three weeks?" Mutharika said. "Would they, if they were sitting in my position, have brought in foreign exchange, fuel, electricity supply within three weeks?"

He said his government was working to address concerns, but that "measures cannot come to fruition all at once."

Mutharika has vowed to "go after" opponents in the wake of the protests. In his speech Sunday, he accused unnamed foreign governments of paying demonstrators "to force unconstitutional regime change."

Luther Mambala, president of the Malawi Congress for Trade Unions, one of the main organizers of the demonstrations, called Mutharika's accusations of outside influence "laughable."

Undule Mwakasungula, chairman of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, which also organized protests, said the aim of the demonstrations was never regime change, so it was not necessary to seek outside support.

"We're not politicians," he said. "We just want our president to address challenges besetting the country."

The U.S. government froze a $350 million aid program for Malawi because of the protests. Even before the demonstrations, Britain had suspended aid to Malawi, citing concerns about economic management and a crackdown on human rights. Germany also decreased aid to Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, following its failure to repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality and its enactment of laws seen as restricting media freedom.

In a report released Monday, the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission accused police of a "gross violation" of human rights for using live bullets when looting broke out during the demonstrations. The commission also accused Mutharika, his party and the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation of using inflammatory language and taking other steps ahead of the demonstrations that might have fanned the violence.

Police spokesman Willie Mwaluka said Monday police were awaiting the results of another inquiry ordered by Mutharika.