Women human rights defenders bear brunt of govt oppression

AS the world commemorated International Women Human Rights Defenders Day this week, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) takes the opportunity to highlight some of the hazards faced by such activists in their work to protect and promote human rights.
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From March to September this year, ZLHR represented over 550 individual women human rights defenders charged with various offences ranging from obstruction of traffic to conduct conducive to public disorder, all in their attempt to petition local and national leadership on social, political and economic issues which continue to bedevil our country. Not a single successful prosecution of these women human rights defenders has been recorded since 2003 when ZLHR embarked on the human rights defenders project. This has confirmed our perception that laws are being used in Zimbabwe as a tool of persecution rather than of prosecution.


The accounts of the arrests, harassment, conditions of detention, assaults and torture exemplify the typical treatment meted out to women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe when they attempt to assert their rights, and the culture of impunity and disrespect by the law enforcement agents for the fundamental rights of the people they are obliged by law to protect:


* On May 10 2003, 46 women were arrested during a march to commemorate Mothers’ Day in Bulawayo. They were detained at Bulawayo Central and Nkulumane police stations. ZLHR lawyers attended at both stations, but were told that the Law and Order Section at Bulawayo Central was closed and nobody knew where the women were being held. The lawyers were not allowed to have sight of the detention book and the duty inspector advised them to see a senior police officer who was equally unhelpful. To avoid spending the night in custody and to buy their freedom, the women were forced to pay fines of contravening section 7 (b) Miscellaneous Offence Act (MOA). The fines were subsequently challenged in court.


* On June 14 2004, 43 women, including some with breastfeeding babies, were arrested at a community hall in Bulawayo while discussing potential self-help projects. Legal advice had been sought and provided to the women to the effect that, in terms of the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), police notification was not required. The women were detained overnight at Bulawayo Central police station for contravening section 24 of Posa which criminalises the holding of public political meetings without notifying the regulating authority. They were released after the magistrate ruled that meetings such as the one in which the women had participated were exempted from notification.


* Following the government’s introduction of the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill which sought, among other things, to criminalise human rights work through the proscription of receipt of foreign funding for such activities, 50 women were arrested on October 5 2004 for attempting to hand over a petition to parliament against the promulgation of the Bill.


Among the arrested women were journalists who were covering the demonstration. The women were whisked to Harare Central police station where ZLHR lawyers were denied access to their clients and had to sneak into the holding cells under the guise of seeing another client. The attempts were unsuccessful, as lawyers failed to interview all their clients. On the morning of October 6 2004, lawyers succeeded in accessing the women human rights defenders who complained that the holding cells were filthy and overcrowded and that the police continuously harassed them verbally and physically.


The Officer-In-Charge admitted during a meeting with the lawyers that the charges were frivolous and would not stand in a court of law but refused to release the women. On the next day, officers from the Attorney-General’s Office indicated that they were prepared to prosecute the women under section 19 and 24(1) of Posa. Bail for the detainees was not opposed. The accused appeared in court and were granted free bail and remanded to November 11 2004, on which date the charges were withdrawn before plea, confirming the use of Posa as a tool of harassment and repression.


* On March 31 2005, over 300 women gathered in Africa Unity Square in Harare on the eve of the parliamentary elections to pray for a peaceful polling and post polling environment. Around 1800 hours, the women were arrested, and ZLHR lawyers who were deployed to attend to them were informed by the police that they were not allowed access to their clients until the next morning.


The following day the lawyers reported to the police station, where it was established that over 265 women had been arrested and were occupying the backyard parking lot of the police station. The officer commanding Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI), Inspector Ndou, indicated that they had arrested the women for allegedly contravening a section of the Miscellaneous Offences Act (MOA) or the Road Traffic Act in that they had blocked a thorough-fare or pavement.


The police finally settled on charging them with contravening section 3(2) of the MOA which provides that any person who encumbers or obstructs the free passage along a street, road, thoroughfare, side walk or pavement shall be guilty of an offence liable to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months.


The police were not keen to take the women to court to answer to the charges alleged. After much consultation with the women the detainees were forced into paying admission of guilt fines in order to buy their freedom. This position was agreed to by all the women as they had been subjected to cruel and inhuman conditions of detention such as the use of one toilet, sleeping in the open all night, and also being assaulted by law enforcement officers during arrest. Some of the women were hospitalised and treated for various injuries and complaints were lodged in relation to their ordeal with the police and in the police cells. A fine of $25 000 was agreed for each of the 265 women but later successfully challenged the payment of the fines in court.


* On May 4, members of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) staged a demonstration in Bulawayo protesting against the exorbitant increase in tuition fees for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. Over 166 people were arrested including 77 school children who were released on the same day.


The activists were detained at different police stations in and around Bulawayo — Bulawayo Central, Queenspark, Mzilikazi, Hillside, Donnington and Sauerstown. The recording of warned and cautioned statements only began on May 6 after the detainees had already spent two days in detention. The docket was taken to the Public Prosecutor on May 8, but he declined to prosecute and ordered the detainees to be immediately released.


The police had intended to charge the women human rights defenders with contravening section 7C of the MOA which relates to any act that is likely to lead to a breach of the peace or to create a nuisance or obstruction. The women reported death threats by police officers against the leadership of the women’s group, and ZLHR lawyers were forced to deliver a formal letter of complaint to the police with a request to launch an investigation into the alleged death threats;
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* On September 11, 107 Woza members were arrested during a march to Town House. The women had been carrying objection letters and placards with them to Town House demanding better service delivery in Harare, more affordable rates and the dissolution of the illegal commission currently running the city of Harare. The women were met at the entrance to Town House by police and were arrested. Five police trucks ferried those arrested to Harare Central police station where they were separated and taken to six different police stations in Harare — Braeside, Mbare, Glen Norah, Highlands, Chitungwiza and Harare Central in an effort to frustrate the efforts of their lawyers in securing their release.


Some of the women were tortured during detention and a pregnant woman among those arrested went into labour and was rushed to Parirenyatwa Hospital where she later gave birth. Fifty-six women required medical treatment for bruises and skin diseases and upper respiratory tract disorder which they acquired in detention. Many exhibited signs of mental distress. They were charged under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform Act), which was immediately challenged as unconstitutional.


These cases handled by lawyers and members of ZLHR provide a shocking picture of the operating environment for women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe and the abuse to which they are consistently subjected. ZLHR is appalled at the comprehensive and systematic desecration of human rights accorded to human beings in general and women in particular. There has been an overt intensification of repression by key state actors against women human rights defenders over the last few years. This growing tendency to restrict political and social space has been consolidated with startling impunity, selective application of the law, and the continued promulgation of laws which inhibit the enjoyment, promotion and protection of fundamental rights by women human rights defenders.


Further, the existence of conservative and fundamentalist prejudices as embedded in traditional views alongside general human rights aspirations has meant that women human rights defenders have led a war on two fronts, the national and the domestic. With such convenient excuses as “national security” and “culture”, a vicious and voracious clampdown on such defenders has been perpetrated by both state and non-state actors.