Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Freed consumer activist speaks of hope for human rights in Malawi

John Kapito, consumer rights activist and human rights defender, talks about his recent detention by the late President of Malawi.

I have been an activist for the past 20 years.

Advocacy and the promotion of rights is at the centre of the work of the Malawi Human Rights Commission for which I am chairperson and of CI member organisation the Consumers Association of Malawi for which I am executive advisor.

In both of these organisations, we are driven by our passion to work with the most vulnerable members of our society by ensuring that their rights are protected at all times. We are seen to be the voice of the voiceless, who are many in the developing world. 

The Commission, with support from the Consumers Association, made a number of public statements attacking the state on its continued disregard for good governance and various human rights abuses that included the limitation of the rights of people to demonstrate, to have freedom of speech and total elimination of space for consumers to speak and make demands for a better quality of life. 

In Malawi, like many African and developing countries elsewhere, the distribution of goods and services is under state control and, as such, the majority of the poor are unable to speak against the state for fear of being intimidated and victimised. Because of this, the landscape for participatory advocacy is very limited. 

I have had many disagreements with my state President, the late Bingu wa Mutharika. During the many meetings I held with him over the years, he continuously threatened to dismiss me from the Commission and even threatened my life and the lives of my family.

The President’s advisors recommended that the time had come for me to be eliminated. I challenged the President that what was said by his advisors was hate speech which must be condemned. The President accused me of insulting him and said that this was reason to eliminate me.

Two days later, I was told the President had died.

My detention

On 17 March, I was approached by a group of policemen outside a hotel in the capital city, Lilongwe. They searched my car and said they were looking for seditious materials that they believed I was printing and taking to Geneva for the annual meeting on human rights at the Human Rights Council.

I was taken to police headquarters and I was denied access to my lawyer at that point. I was moved between four police stations before I was charged with sedition and possession of illegal foreign currency.

They then acquired a search warrant for my house. Close to midnight, they took me home and searched my house until the morning.

I was then taken back to the police station where I was told that the authorities advised that I be granted bail on my charges of possessing alleged seditious materials and ‘illegal’ foreign exchange. I managed to get my passport back and was also allowed to travel to Geneva after two days.

Upon my return from Geneva, I was scheduled to meet the President for the human rights briefings. That meeting was very tense, with the President accusing me of undermining him and behaving as if I was an elected President.

I was also accused of taking human rights reports to the international bodies and, in so doing, I was responsible for the economic meltdown in Malawi due to my revelations of
human rights abuses to the international community.
It has been a long and painful battle with the state. It has caused many friends to avoid me for fear of being associated with the tough positions I took. 

But today I am glad to say that I have become a darling of many Malawians who continue to celebrate the death of the President for his hard autocratic policies. It is exciting once again to be a respected activist. The battle goes on for economic and social justice for our people.

The latest news from Malawi is that the new President, Joyce Banda, a former activist, is saying that Britain, the biggest bilateral donor to Malawi, is now planning to resume aid and normalise diplomatic relations.

All the charges against Jon Kapito have been dropped.

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