ZIMBABWE last week rushed to respond to a damning report by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) tabled at the just-ended 36th ordinary session of the African Commission on H
uman and People’s Rights (ACHPR) in Dakar, Senegal.
The report highlighted political repression and rising human rights abuses in the country.
The permanent secretary in the Justice Ministry, David Mangota, hurriedly moved to contest the explosive report prepared by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in a desperate bid to ward off pressure from the ACHPR executive council during a debate on the document that was classified as Item 7 on the agenda.
The report, presented by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights director Arnold Tsunga, chronicled the flurry of repressive legislation recently enacted by the Zimbabwe government, the relentless persecution of human rights defenders, use of organised violence and torture by government and undue interference with the judiciary and the legal profession.
Mangota rubbished the allegations accusing NGOs of “peddling false information”. Commenting on the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), Mangota said: “Most of the challenged provisions have been found to be constitutional and only one or two provisions have been struck off as unconstitutional.” He declined to comment on the closure of the Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday saying “the issue is sub judice as it is a communication before the commission”.
Regional media watchdog, Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) had sought the indictment of the Zimbabwe government over the closure of the two papers. Mangota then tried to justify the closure of the Tribune saying “the paper was in violation of the Act under which it was registered.
“The fact that the paper’s majority shareholder is a sitting member of parliament and a member of the ruling party Zanu PF shows that the legislation is applied equally without bias,” he said.
Mangota tried to defend the draconian Public Order and Security Act (Posa)saying the law was inspired by Australian and British public order legislation, an assertion that has been dismissed by the two governments.
“These are countries we are continually referred to by NGOs and the opposition in Zimbabwe to be epitomes of democracy,” Mangota said. “Government worked with the (parliamentary legal) committee to ensure that the Bill was consistent with the Zimbabwe constitution. Thereafter the committee issued a report that all the provisions of the Bill were consistent with our constitution and in particular the Bill of Rights in the constitution.”
Mangota denied that the judiciary had been severely compromised. Tsunga had alleged that legislation had been passed to supersede the jurisdiction of the courts to grant bail in certain political cases and where individuals were accused of economic sabotage.
Citing jailed opposition legislator Roy Bennett’s case, Tsunga told the commission that the court’s jurisdiction had been usurped by parliament.
However, Mangota answered: “Recently the independence of our judiciary was celebrated in our country by the opposition and the NGOs following the acquittal of (Morgan) Tsvangirai, the president of the opposition MDC from charges of treason. Where challenges to the constitution made by the opposition or the NGOs are successful, the independence of the judiciary is not an issue. But when the challenges are unsuccessful, it is claimed that the judiciary is being manipulated by the executive.”
Mangota categorically denied that there was state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe. He said the reports were “fictitious”, intended to give an impression that there was an increase in human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
Mangota also defended the NGOs Bill currently before parliament saying it was aimed at the prohibition of foreign funding for only those NGOs involved in governance issues.
“The Bill does not prohibit funding of NGOs involved in developmental, humanitarian and other related activities,” he said.
Mangota repeated government’s mantra that British prime minister Tony Blair had been funding the political activities of NGOs and the opposition through the Westminster Foundation, hence the need to curtail the activities of such organisations.
Mangota also said there were no deaths caused by starvation in Zimbabwe. He said that the government had managed to meet the needs of its people.
“Allegations are that the government is distributing food relief for political mileage and that persons critical of government are not receiving state assistance,” said Mangota. “Considering that the opposition political party in our country claims to have the majority support, we should by now have seen high levels of starvation if the allegations were true,” he said.
“Government is yet to receive reports of deaths caused by starvation.”
Mangota told the commission that the government has a functioning social security task force whose responsibility includes monitoring the food supplies in the country.