(Updates with details of protests starting in third paragraph.)
July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika vowed to prosecute leaders of protests against his government that left 18 people dead and dozens injured, as the U.S. and U.K. condemned a crackdown by security forces.
“To overthrow a legitimate government is treasonous and you will hear from me soon,” Mutharika said in a speech broadcast on state radio. “I will smoke you out wherever you are because you have no right to destroy our peace.” Yesterday, Mutharika said he was ready to hold talks with the protest organizers.
Eighteen people were killed in clashes between police and demonstrators in the towns of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu over the past two days, Henry Chimbali, the spokesman for the health ministry, said by phone today. At least 44 people are being treated for gunshot wounds in Mzuzu, Amnesty International said, calling for an investigation into the police response. Mutharika said 11 people died in the protests.
Civil society groups, including the Institute of Policy Interaction, the Malawi Law Society and the Council of Churches, and opposition political parties led the demonstrations to demand an improvement in the lives of poor Malawians and an end to fuel and currency shortages. The protests started on July 20 and rioting continued in some areas yesterday. About 74 percent of Malawi’s 15 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.
Police fought with protesters as tens of thousands of them wearing red clothes marched in Blantyre, the commercial capital, while people set cars alight and burned tires in Mzuzu in the country’s northern region.
Mutharika today dismissed a petition from the protesters and read out a list of people that were trying to depose him. The deaths should be blamed on the organizers of the demonstrations, he said.
The U.S., among foreign donors that provide as much as 40 percent of Malawi’s annual national budget, condemned the use of force by Malawi’s police and warned the government against a crackdown on the free press.
“The government’s attempt to prohibit its citizens from marching, and the Communications Regulatory Authority’s ban on independent media coverage undermine democracy and the rule of law that Malawians cherish,” U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Heide Bronke Fulton said in an e-mailed statement.
The telecommunications regulator switched off three private radio stations -- MIJ FM Radio, Joy FM Radio and Capital Radio - - to stop them from reporting on the protests, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi Chapter.
The U.K. also expressed its concern “about the state of democratic governance and human rights in Malawi,” Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “The situation is extremely worrying.”
The U.K. cut aid and announced in May it is reviewing relations with the country after Mutharika expelled its envoy for criticizing him in a leaked cable. Other countries are holding back on giving aid until Malawi completes the second review of its program with the International Monetary Fund, which is overdue.
Amnesty said in an e-mailed report that it had recorded “increasing intolerance of dissent, and vilification of human rights activists by senior members of the government” in recent months.
Demonstrators oppose government policies and want an end to shortages of fuel and foreign currency. Declining tobacco exports have reduced foreign exchange receipts, making it more difficult to pay for motor fuel imports. Malawi is the world’s biggest producer of the burley variety of tobacco.
--Editors: Gordon Bell, Karl Maier
To contact the reporter on this story: Frank Jomo in Blantyre at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at email@example.com