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Despite threats, Malawi protesters rally against high prices, corruption

Like those in North Africa, nationwide protests in Malawi have been sparked by discontent over higher food and fuel prices, as well as concerns that the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

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Opposition members say that such tactics reflect a growing level of repression by Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which controls the 193 member National Assembly and which has passed laws in the past year that rein in public dissent.

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Retrogressive laws

Among the bills is the "Civil Procedure (Suits by or against the Government or Public Officers) (Amendment) Bill of 2010," widely known as the Injunctions Bill. It would forbid courts from imposing grant injunctions by citizens or civic groups against government or public officers. Petitioners against the Injunctions Bill argue that the law is unconstitutional, as it could deny citizens their right to instant relief when their rights are trampled on.

Other retrogressive laws that have been passed in parliament include the search without warrant by police and the gagging of media through section 46 of the penal code. Section 46 empowers the minister of information to shut down media houses or publications deemed to be misleading the people. One bill still under consideration would forbid courts to impose injunctions against government or public officers.

While the government has stopped similar demonstrations in the past, the Malawi Law Society (MLS) said it fully supports the exercise of the “constitutionally enshrined” right for citizens to assemble and demonstrate peacefully for a common cause, and would provide legal representation to demonstrators after the protests, to ensure “that any person who suffers any abuse or reprisals as a result of his or her exercise of the constitutional right to assemble and demonstrate on the appointed day is accorded proper legal redress.”

Britain's involvement

Britain, whose high commissioner was expelled from Malawi a few months back after a leaked memo quoted him describing Mutharika as intolerant of criticism, last week announced that it would indefinitely suspend its annual allotment of 22 million pounds for support of Malawi’s budget. Britain will continue to provide program support, however, for basic services such as health and education.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) said Britain’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has decided to stop budgetary support to Malawi after this country of 13 million failed to address concerns the British government raised over economic management and governance.

“On governance, demonstrations have been suppressed, civil society organizations intimidated and an injunctions bill passed that would make it easier for government to place restrictions on opponents without legal challenge,” Mr. Mitchell wrote in a DFID statement.

The DFID also expressed concern over Malawi’s “overvalued” exchange rate of 150 Malawi Kwacha to $1, which has “a serious impact on the private sector’s ability to drive future growth.” High exchange rates make it difficult for the government to import fuel; car owners and truck drivers often have to wait for days in lines at fuel pumps in order to receive fuel.

Mutharika has three more years to rule Malawi. The ruling DPP has already launched a campaign for the president’s brother, Peter, who is minister of education, to be the country’s next president. Vice President Joyce Banda was expelled from the party allegedly for establishing parallel structures and nurturing ambitions to replace Mutharika.

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