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Malawi court blocks contested NGO regulation law

Lilongwe, Malawi | AFP | A Malawi court has blocked parliament debating a contested bill critics say would hamper charities and NGOs while giving government control over their work in the aid-reliant country.

Judge Charles Mkandawire ruled on Monday in favour of activists who had sought the injunction of the NGO Amendment Bill arguing the law would create a “monster regulator” and erode democratic freedoms.

The ruling is temporary pending a full hearing of the case, though no date has been set yet.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest and most aid-dependent countries and corruption is also rife.

Activists from the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Centre for the Development of People, and Youth and Society group also claimed the law was drafted without consulting NGOs.

“(The regulator) would have too much power… and would, in the long run, use these powers to intimidate and stifle the civic space within which NGOs operate,” said the application to block the law.

The regulator’s assessors would also have been appointed by a minister, handing excessive power to the government, the coalition of NGOs said.

“It is a bad and draconian law. It had bad sections that will suppress civil liberties such as the right to association,” Centre for the Development of People director Gift Trapence told AFP.

Directors of charities and NGOs who did not comply with the law as drafted would have faced jail terms of up to seven years and fines.

Parliament spokesperson Leonard Mengezi said “parliament always complies with court orders”.

– Upcoming election –

Meanwhile, the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM), led by presidential hopeful and Vice President Saulos Chilima, said it supported NGO efforts to stop the new law.

“We are surprised by the speed with which government is pushing the bill. Because the standard procedure is that before you design a bill, you have a policy,” said party spokesman Joseph Chidanti Malunga.

Aid-dependent, war-torn South Sudan sparked controversy in 2015 when it passed a law forcing aid agencies to ensure no more than one fifth of their staff were foreign born.

It was widely seen as an effort by officials to clamp down on the groups which were often critical of the government.

Malawi President Peter Mutharika has previously faced criticism from NGOs for alleged government corruption and incompetence.

Malawi goes to the polls in presidential, parliamentary and council elections on May 21 in which Mutharika will face off against former president Joyce Banda as well as his VP, Chilima.

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