SINCE Independence, Zimbabweans have endured and witnessed countless incidences of harassment, assaults, rape, different forms of torture and extra-judicial killings by state security agents and partisan political mobs.
June 26, the International Day of Support for Victims of Torture in Zimbabwe, went eerily quietly with no official recognition.
On this day in 1987, the UN Convention Against Torture came into force requiring member states to take effective steps to prevent torture in all its forms.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, who recently visited Zimbabwe at the invitation of government, marked the day by releasing a statement reminding member states to respect their obligations to outlaw torture, saying a lot still has to be done.
“Torture is increasingly criminalised in the law books of states and police training curricula frequently incorporate the provisions of the convention. Yet much remains to be done. The use of torture is far from over. Torture is illegal under any circumstances and there are no exceptions,” the statement read.
In Zimbabwe, the winter month of June has in many years been marked by torture since Independence.
Just two months after Zimbabwe celebrated its freedom on April 18 1980, about 400 Zipra guerrillas were rounded up by security forces and taken to Khami Prison where they were tortured. This reached boiling point in 1982 leading to the Gukurahundi massacres.
In its 1997 report, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) and the Legal Resources Foundation stated that more than 7 000 cases of torture, more than 10 000 arbitrary detentions, about 3 000 extrajudicial killings and hundreds of abductions took place in Matabeleland and some parts of Midlands during the Gukurahundi era.
An estimated 20 000 people were killed during the massacre period.
Fast forward to June 2000 — the first of many violently contested general elections between the MDC and Zanu PF.
The land invasions of 2000 set the tone for increased electoral violence in a way that had never been experienced before with voter intimidation, abductions of opposition supporters and arbitrary beatings of civilians being used to coerce people to vote for Zanu PF and President Robert Mugabe.
Between 2001-2004, 18 000 youths were recruited under a controversial youth national service programme and sent to training camps where they underwent political indoctrination before they were deployed to fight partisan political wars.
After the June 2008 presidential election run-off, local human rights groups claimed at least 33 people had died from about 2 000 incidences of torture which occurred in the run-up to the poll. More acts of violence followed in the post-election period.
Most of the violence the country has experienced, especially in the run-up to elections, has been blamed on Zanu PF as it seeks to maintain its stranglehold on power at all costs.
The country’s security sector has been fingered as playing a crucial role in poll violence, with security chiefs openly expressing their allegiance to Zanu PF and Mugabe.
Deputy Justice minister Obert Gutu took a strong stance against torture and spoke of Zimbabwe’s steps towards ratifying the Convention Against Torture.
Gutu told the Zimbabwe Independent that torture is very primitive and dehumanises the victim and the perpetrator.
“The use of torture within our enforcement agencies bastardises the criminal justice system,” said Gutu.
“The law is very clear in our constitution and we call upon law enforcement officers to adhere to that. Zimbabwe is making progress towards ratifying the Convention Against Torture and this is a historic event and a historic development as the ratification would most likely impact positively on the forthcoming electioneering process. I believe that it will help reduce instances of political violence.”
At least 147 countries have ratified the convention.
According to the Ministry of Justice, Zimbabwe’s ratification and adoption of the convention into domestic law means torture would be treated as a specific crime.
Currently, Section 15 of the Constitution forbids torture and states: “No person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other such treatment.”
However, there is no legal definition for torture in Zimbabwean law. In the absence of legislation, common law provisions on offences such as assault and rape are often used to prosecute in cases of torture.
Local civil society groups are very critical of the inclusive government’s failure to prosecute torturers.
In a statement issued on June 26, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said despite the existence of Article 18 of the Global Political Agreement which exhorts the state to “apply the laws of the country fully and impartially in bringing all perpetrators of politically-motivated violence to book”, the perpetrators, although known, remain protected by a highly compromised prosecuting authority.
“The perpetrators continue to taunt the victims and boast they have not been prosecuted for their heinous crimes because ‘tisu tirikutonga’ or ‘tisu tiripanyanga’ (we are in charge of the country),” the statement read.
Highly critical of the state’s failure to deal with human rights offenders and provide redress for torture victims of the 2008 election, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) said no material government efforts have been made to cater for those who survived such atrocities (2008s) yet the nation is again expecting fiercely-contested elections most likely next year.
ZimRights observed June 26 under the theme “Rehabilitation works and is a torture survivor’s right” by holding small prayer gatherings and candle-lit vigils in Harare, Masvingo, Zaka, Gweru and Kwekwe. Victims shared their testimonies while activists spoke about the impact of torture and possible legal remedies for victims.
The director of the NGO for Human Rights Forum Abel Chikomo called on the government to take concrete steps towards assisting victims.
“We urge government to translate its commitment into action as a matter of urgency and implore it to establish structures and institutions for the rehabilitation of victims of torture,” said Chikomo.
Despite frequent reports of violence by state security agents, Gutu remains optimistic the law would be effective and in place by the next elections.
“I am pretty confident that before the next elections, there will be a convention against torture that would have been properly domesticated and will be in place by then,” he said.
If so, the next polls would test the strength of this law since most perpetrators of previous election-related violence remain scot-free.
Much remains to be done in support of victims of torture, but if the proposed law can offer justice to survivors, it would give more meaning to June 26.