By Jan Raath
THE beating stopped as the sun began to go down. After two-and-a-half hours, the 14 men and one woman held at Matapi police station in Mbare had suffered fi
ve fractured arms, seven hand fractures, two sets of ruptured eardrums, 15 cases of severe buttock injuries, deep soft-tissue bruising all over, and open lacerations.
The 15 included Wellington Chibebe, the leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and senior officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
“As a case of police brutality on a group, it is the worst I’ve ever seen,” a doctor who helped to attend to them said.
President Robert Mugabe’s security agencies are notorious for violent assault, but this was the first time that the top strata of the opposition had been subjected to severe physical attack.
The assaults took place after police broke up an attempted protest by the trade unions against the government’s ruinous handling of the economy. The savagery of the attacks is seen as indicating the jitteriness in the government over its hold on power amid the desperate poverty into which Mugabe has sunk Zimbabweans.
“It was carried out as a deliberate, premeditated warning, from the highest level, to anyone else who tries mass protest, that this is what will happen to them,” a Western diplomatic source said.
Last Friday 31 protesters appeared in court charged with public order offences. Six were wearing slings. They were remanded on bail for trial on October 3.
Some had been taken straight to court from hospital. Chibebe was unable to appear because of his injuries.
The Harare demonstration had been intended as part of a day of nationwide protests. A huge police clampdown meant that none could get underway. The government had given warning that the demonstrations would be “at the ZCTU’s peril” and denounced them as attempts “to create public disorder to achieve regime change”.
Last month Mugabe added his own threat to opposition groups: “Be warned: we have armed men and women who can pull the trigger.”
Government has not responded to the world outrage over last week’s violence. The state media has not mentioned the assaults.
When would-be protesters were taken to the cells last Wednesday, they found two teams of five young men in standard police uniform and equipped with heavy metre-long wooden sticks. The assailants also used their boots and hands.
Prisoners were called out two at a time and beaten continuously for between 15 and 20 minutes. When one team tired, the second took over. At least two sticks were broken on the bodies of the prisoners.
It was 36 hours before they were taken to hospital.
“It was maximum force,” Toendepi Shonhe, a local MDC organiser, said in hospital this week. A bunch of steel and brass keys that he had in his trousers had been buckled from the blows.
Chibebe and another trade unionist were the first to be pushed into a small cell.
“We heard the screaming and the sound of beating, but we thought it was from another part of the police station,” said Shonhe. “Then Chibebe came out and his face was covered with blood.”
Ian Makoni (56), a member of the MDC national executive, went in with Lucia Matibenga, MDC vice-president. As Makoni walked into the cell, he received a hard slap in the face: “The man said: ‘So you think you can rule this country? We won’t let that happen’.”
Then the beating began. It continued when Makoni fell to the floor, one policeman lashing him while his boot was on Makoni’s neck. Another briefly stopped to blow on his hands for relief from the exertion.
Matibenga was crying: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as they whipped her. Matibenga had her right arm broken by police in another incident about a year ago. On Wednesday they hit her repeatedly on the same spot. Makoni fell unconscious three times after his assault.
James Gumbi, a member of the ZCTU council, the last to be beaten, received the force of all five assailants at once. The 15 spent the night in a cell meant for five.
“All you could hear was groaning all night,” Makoni said. “It was cold on the floor. We had three blankets. You couldn’t move because the cell was so packed. You had to lie on your painful side. It was torture.”
Chibebe did not move.
“We thought he was going to die,” Shonhe said. “And we thought they were coming back. One of the policemen said: ‘Wait till you see what we are going to do when it is dark.’”
Shonhe said: “I will demonstrate again. This is only the beginning. The only way out is for us to come together and face the dictator head-on.” — The Times (UK).