Malawi 2020

Human rights defenders were intimidated, harassed and arbitrarily arrested. The independence of the judiciary remained under attack from the executive. Prisons were overcrowded and conditions poor. Attacks against people with albinism continued.


Following mass protests against the controversial presidential elections in 2019 which saw President Mutharika re-elected, the Constitutional Court annulled the results in February and called for fresh elections within 150 days, as well as for reforms to the Electoral Commission Act. The elections took place in June and a new President was elected.

In March, the government declared a state of disaster in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedom of expression

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders were arrested, attacked, harassed and intimidated as the authorities mounted a crackdown on dissent ahead of the June elections.

Between March and June, the President and senior ruling party officials issued public statements threatening human rights defenders and activists.

In March, Timothy Mtambo, Gift Trapence and MacDonald Sembereka, of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, were arrested for calling on people to protest in front of the President’s house to urge him to assent to the Electoral Reforms Bill. They were charged with, among other things, “inciting other(s) to contravene the law”, under the Penal Code. The police released them from Maula prison in the capital, Lilongwe, four days later, under stringent bail conditions.


In June, two weeks before the elections, the President’s office issued a notice to forcibly place the Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda and another judge Edward Twea on leave pending retirement with immediate effect. This was irregular as the President’s office has no power to do so and was widely seen as an attempt to punish the two for having been on the bench that in February annulled the 2019 elections.

Right to health

In August, the President pardoned 499 prisoners to ease overcrowding and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. Nevertheless, prisons remained overcrowded, and prisoners’ health was at risk. Over 107 prisoners and 27 prison officers had tested positive for COVID-19 by August which accounted for 3% of infections nationwide. Facilities were dilapidated and there was insufficient access to food, water and medical treatment throughout the country.

Discrimination - people with albinism

Between January and October, at least three abduction attempts were made against people with albinism. In January, the grave of a two-year-old boy with albinism was tampered with in Mulanje. In February, Tafwauli Ngona, a 92-year-old woman, had two toes severed in an attack by an unidentified assailant in Mzimba.

The trial of 12 people accused in connection with the murder of MacDonald Masambuka, whose body was found dumped in a field in 2018, continued. A former presidential adviser and some politicians were implicated in the killing, but charges were not brought against them.

Unlawful killings

In July, the Police Commissioner for the Central Region and 11 police officers were arrested in connection with the death of Buleya Lule in police custody at Lilongwe Police Station in Area 3 in 2019. According to an autopsy report, he died after being electrocuted. He was being held in connection with the abduction and murder of a 14-year-old boy with albinism in Dedza.