Violence against civil society rises: report

VIOLENT repression of civil society organisations has intensified in Zimbabwe in the past three years, claimed a new report from an international rights body.


The 28-page report, Yo

u Will Be Thoroughly Beaten: The Brutal Suppression of Dissent in Zimbabwe
, from Human Rights Watch, has documented alleged systematic abuses against rights activists, including excessive use of force by police during protests, arbitrary arrests and detentions in the past year.


“When Zimbabweans engage in peaceful protest, the government responds with brutal repression,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities use torture, arbitrary arrest and detention to deter activists from engaging in their right to freely assemble and express their views.”


The rights organisation has urged the Zimbabwean government to ensure that the security apparatus respects the rule of law and human rights and conduct investigations into cases of alleged abuse and torture at the hands of the police.


State Security minister Didymus Mutasa rubbished the Human Rights Watch report as “damn lies”. “Why should we not ensure that our people observe our laws? We don’t need the international community to come and tell us how to observe our laws. When our laws are transgressed, action will be taken.”


The report cited the alleged assault and torture while in custody of more than a dozen Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions members after a protest was foiled by the security forces in September this year.


Zimbabwe Election Support Network chair Reginald Matchaba-Hove, a medical doctor who initially examined all the unionists, told Human Rights Watch: “I was really shocked and taken back by what I saw. To me the injuries showed that they (the unionists) were trying to protect themselves. They were trying to protect their heads using their raised arms. They had fractures to their arms, wrists, and fingers. They all had defensive injuries. The blows were coming to their heads.”


Mutasa explained that the police had been provoked by the unionists to take action. “One of the trade unionists had attacked a policeman at a roadblock. So then the police told the trade unionists: ‘Now you are in our hands, we are beating you.’ How can people attack the police and not expect them to retaliate?”


The Human Rights Watch document said police had also appeared to have singled out student activists. “The police regularly disrupt student meetings, and student leaders in particular face constant harassment and intimidation from the police.”


Police have also used laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Miscellaneous Offences Act to justify the arbitrary arrest and detention of hundreds of civil society activists around the country, alleged the rights organisation. “After arrest, most of the activists are released within hours, but some are held for days, often without charge. Others are brought before the judicial authorities to answer charges that, in many cases, are dismissed by the courts.”


Civil society activists who had been detained told Human Rights Watch that they were often held in overcrowded and filthy conditions, and sometimes denied legal counsel and access to food, water and medical assistance.


Human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama is quoted in the report as saying: “The police believe that human rights advocates want to topple a democratically-elected government. Anything that is likely to link to human rights is construed as an attempt to change the government.”


Last week an alliance of Zimbabwe’s churches, including the influential Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference, called for a new constitution to help end the country’s political and economic crisis, and backed their initiative with the need to engage the government constructively. The church bodies have put together a 50-page document containing solutions titled The Zimbabwe We Want: Towards a National Vision for Zimbabwe, a product of four months of wide consultations with Zimbabweans, which was presented to President Robert Mugabe on Friday. Speaking at the launch, Mugabe reportedly said although he welcomed their initiative for dialogue, his government had some “non-negotiable” interests.


The alliance is proposing the establishment of an independent Land Commission to ensure fair distribution of land, and a review of controversial media and security laws that critics say are being used to stifle the opposition.
Mugabe said he was not convinced the country needed a new constitution and those who believed that Zimbabwe’s Independence constitution was imposed by Britain were wrong.


“We fought for it, our people died for it. There could never be another constitution so dear, so sacrosanct. True, there might be amendments necessary to make, let us say so, but to say this is not home-grown is as if the British imposed this on us,” he was quoted as saying. — Irin.

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