Lilongwe, Malawi – Police in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe have arrested 75 people including human rights campaigners during a clampdown on protests against “selective justice” by the country’s judiciary.
The arrests followed a last-minute high court injunction that attempted to ban the demonstrations.
Police spokesperson Hastings Chigalu confirmed the arrests on Wednesday saying they were due to “lawlessness” and that people were looting and breaking into shops, smashing vehicles and blocking roads.
One of the protest leaders, Kingsley Mpaso, of Lilongwe-based civil rights group Human Rights Ambassadors, told the media his group was unfazed by the arrests and that protesters would fight on until justice prevailed.
The activists are demonstrating against what they call selective justice by the Southern African country’s judiciary in recent months. They cited the case of a teenager, Mussa John — who was given an eight-year jail sentence by a magistrates’ court for being found with cannabis. However, a prominent business executive reportedly found cultivating the plant in his compound was only given a fine by the courts.
This led to outrage as social media users pointed out the discrepancies in the rulings, causing protests and a high court review of John’s case.
As the heavily armed police tried to stop the hundreds of protesters gathered, the activists went on a vandalism spree, authorities said. Witnesses say the police sprayed tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Other grievances of the activists include a string of pending court cases including one involving Norman Chisale, a former bodyguard to former President Peter Mutharika, who has been accused of corruption after being unable to account for his enormous wealth.
Protesters are also angry over a delay in the prosecution of former lands minister Kezzie Msukwa, who has been linked to kickbacks for contracts worth more than $150m. Although President Lazarus Chakwera has suspended some top officials implicated in the scandal, the demonstrators demanded speedy public trials.
The protests went ahead despite a court injunction by a group of so-called “concerned citizens” just hours earlier, to stop them. Authorities also reportedly demanded a list of names of people to act as guarantors that the demonstrations would be peaceful.
But attempts to block the protests led to chaotic scenes, as people barricaded roads and burned car tyres in various locations of the city.
Information minister Gospel Kazako did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Lilongwe-based lawyer and human rights activist Alexious Kamangila told Al Jazeera that the protest leaders satisfied all the legal requirements for holding demonstrations.
“The injunction against the demonstrations is unfortunate as it is unfounded at law,” he said. “The court has set new requirements that are not provided by our laws. For instance, the court cannot require the conveners to provide names of participants to be held liable when all the law requires are details for the conveners,” Kamangila said.
“How does the court expect the conveners to have the names of participants in advance when these are public demonstrations and people just show up on the day?” he asked.