Human Rights in Africa: Review of 2019 - Malawi [AFR 01/1352/2020]


Discrimination against people with albinism continued, while threats to freedom of association and peaceful assembly heightened. There were increased attacks on Human Rights Defenders.


2019 was an election year for Malawi. There were incidences of protests in Malawi around elections, and the government used the law to silence civil society leaders and organisers of peaceful demonstrations. Some civil society leaders were threatened with death and their property was destroyed by ruling party activists. Persons with albinism continued to live in fear as ritual killers murdered at least one person with albinism.

Discrimination - People with albinism

Persons with albinism continued to be targeted for their body parts: in many of the cases persons with albinism have been killed for ritual purposes and a superstitious belief that their body parts would bring luck in business and politics. In January, 60-year-old Yassin Kwenda Phiri was murdered in his house in Nkhata Bay while his 9-year-old son George watched helplessly. Two men cut off his father’s arms with a knife and removed his intestines with their bare hands. Goodson Fanizo, 14, was abducted in February. Although six suspects were picked up by police, neither the child nor his body had been found by year’s end.

On a positive note, the High Court prosecuted and convicted five people on charges of murder of persons with albinism. All five people were sentenced to death. While Amnesty International welcomed the convictions, it remains opposed to the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment, even for serious offences. People with albinism also continued to face challenges accessing healthcare services in district hospitals.

Freedom of association and peaceful assembly

Following the May general elections, opposition parties and civil society organizations were unhappy with the outcome, alleging electoral fraud. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) organized protests against alleged mismanagement of elections by the Malawi Electoral Commission. The state responded by deploying members of the police service and the military and applying for court injunctions to stop protests.

In August, the High Court dismissed the government’s request for an injunction against protests to demand the resignation of elections commission chair, Jane Ansah. The Supreme Court also rejected the injunction request. Judge Chikopa concluded that the right to demonstrate in the Malawi constitution was unconditional and the state could not impose blanket bans or use the courts to ban the protests.

Human rights defenders


Human rights defenders and activists remained under threat as the country prepared for its May general elections. HRDC activists who organized and led demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud after the May elections were attacked by ruling party youth cadres, intimidated, and targeted for prosecution by the authorities. Timothy Mtambo, Chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), increasingly received death threats through text messages and was attacked by unknown people. In October, at around 11pm unknown gunmen fired six shots at Mtambo’s vehicle as he drove home from a meeting in Lilongwe.

On 25 September, unknown youths hacked human rights activist Billy Mayaya and several other activists in Blantyre.[1] Mayaya sustained serious injuries to his head. Instead of protecting activists from attacks, police tear-gassed demonstrators.

In July, Gift Trapence and Reverend MacDonald Sembereka were charged with embezzlement of funds and operating unregistered NGOs. They were both discharged by the courts. The two human rights defenders have been targeted to silence them and stop them from organising further demonstrations.

Unlawful killings/deaths in custody

Excessive use of force, unlawful killings and torture persisted with impunity. In February, Buleya Lule was arrested in Lilongwe on charges of abducting a child with albinism and appeared in court in February, jointly charged with five other people. Bulela Lule later died in a police cell.[2] The post-mortem report released on 12 April revealed that Bulela had been electrocuted and sustained injuries to his head, buttocks and stomach

In September, one of the post-election protesters, Justin Phiri, died in custody of infected wounds that were not treated. He had been severely assaulted by soldiers and the police did not take him to a hospital.