Source: Season of more arrests beckons | The Financial Gazette February 16, 2017
ANIMAL lovers in every part of the world have a way of knowing the start of the mating season for birds.
In dry deserts or other arid habitats, the sudden appearance of water through seasonal storms or flooding has been known to trigger the mating season — and for a good reason.
In such types of habitats, the arrival of water enables plants to bloom quickly, thus providing a source of food for birds to raise their offspring.
Similarly, it is not difficult to tell when elections are about to be held in Zimbabwe.
A sudden increase in the arrests of civil rights activists has been one sure sign that Zimbabwe is about to go to polls.
A fortnight ago, maverick cleric, Evan Mawarire, was arrested shortly after touching down at the Harare International Airport from the United States.
He had left the country in a huff about six months ago, having led successful anti-government protests last July, using the social media as a tool to stir political consciousness among citizens.
The social media campaign ruffled feathers in the corridors of powers, leading to Mawarire’s arrest on charges of inciting public violence. The court ruled that police had violated his rights and released him, as the State sought to amend its charges in a desperate bid to nail the man of cloth.
The next day after being freed, he left the country to the US, via South Africa.
But upon his surprise return to Zimbabwe, Mawarire has found the State still unforgiving for his role in the protests that rocked the country last year over government’s failures.
He was arraigned before the courts facing fresh charges of subverting a constitutionally elected government after spending several days in remand prison and is currently out on bail.
If found guilty, Mawarire faces a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Another pastor, Phillip Mugadza, was also arrested last month after he prophesised the death of the incumbent.
The State has since somersaulted on his charges, with the latest being “insulting people of a certain race”; initially he was charged with undermining the authority of the President.
Prosecutors now claim that Mugadza insulted the Christian religion and the African tradition by making utterances that predict someone’s death, which is regarded as taboo in Zimbabwe.
He is currently languishing in remand prison after the State alleged that government had no fuel to bring him to court.
Mugadza and Mawarire join a long list of activists who have had brushes with the law for voicing out their frustrations with President Robert Mugabe’s government.
Among the notable activists are Linda Masarira, Acie Lumumba, Denford Ngadziore, Whatmore Makokoba, Promise Mkwananzi and Stan Zvorwadza.
Dozens others, who were arrested in the many weeks of countrywide protests last year, are yet to face trial.
There has been a surge in the number of political arrests in recent months as government clamps down on dissent ahead of the 2018 elections. The trend is seen persisting until after the harmonised polls.
On August 24 and 26, 2016, police arbitrarily arrested over 140 people in Harare on public violence charges. According to their lawyers, most of those arrested, including security guards, vendors and college students taken from class, did not participate in the protests.
They were later freed on bail after several days in detention.
On September 24, 2016, police in Mutare arrested and detained 17 members of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) on charges of allegedly gathering in contravention of the Public Order and Security Act.
After three nights in detention, the Magistrate’s Court freed 15 of the 17 ZINASU members and declared their arrest unlawful.
Journalists were also subjected to arbitrary arrests, harassment, and intimidation when reporting on protests.
Reports by the Media Institute of Southern Africa show that from January 2016, police assaulted, harassed, arrested, or detained at least 31 journalists reporting on protests and yet the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression.
Human rights activists have already raised a red flag over the arrests of political activists and deterioration of human rights issues in Zimbabwe.
In its latest report for 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW), noted an increase in cases of repression against thousands of people who peacefully protested human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation in disregard of rights provisions in the country’s Constitution.
It said no meaningful human rights reforms were implemented during the period. Also, there were no amendments to existing laws to bring them in line with the Constitution and Zimbabwe’s international and regional human rights obligations.
HRW said police abuse had increased and there was excessive use of force to crush dissent.
“Human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and government opponents, were harassed, threatened or faced arbitrary arrest by police. Widespread impunity continues for abuses by police and State security agents,” said HRW.
Washington has also taken note of the development, culminating in its ambassador to Zimbabwe issuing a statement that has riled President Mugabe’s administration.
“The US government unequivocally believes in the basic right to freedom of speech and calls on the Government of Zimbabwe to respect the human rights of all Zimbabwean citizens, which are enshrined in the Constitution. We believe that the basic right of Zimbabweans to freedom of speech — be it in public, through print media, or social media — should be protected within and outside Zimbabwe’s borders,” reads part of the statement.
Washington fears that these recent actions will further limit the right of Zimbabweans to exercise their constitutionally-protected freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, which are similarly protected under Zimbabwe’s international human rights obligations, and are core values of any functioning democracy.
The US government has therefore called on Harare to respect the rule of law and legal due process provided by the Constitution.
Analysts this week said opposition leaders should brace for torrid times ahead as elections draw close.
“We have a hybrid regime which subscribes to democracy, but does not believe in a level electoral field,” said political researcher, Fortune Gwaze.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) said by holding citizens in jail for solely expressing political opinions, government has further tainted the country’s questionable human rights record.
ZPP director, Jestina Mukoko, said the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) and regional bodies should put pressure on government to release all political prisoners and guarantee their right to freedom of expression. Mukoko, herself, was a victim of unlawful arrests and abductions in 2008.
“Zimbabwe is a constitutional democracy, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and this includes the right to express a political opinion in a peaceful manner,” she said. “Citizens also have the right to petition the government or political leaders on any issues affecting them including demanding that the President resign if they have any lawful justification for that demand.”
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the country’s largest opposition party — the Movement for Democratic Change — agrees that the message coming out of this is that the ruling ZANU-PF will go for broke in the campaign trail ahead of the next election.
“The world must brace for impunity and violence against the innocent of our country,” said Tsvangirai.
Amnesty International has also added its voice, saying the situation in Zimbabwe was “worrying”.
“These charges are designed to stop human rights activism and to punish them for speaking out about the declining human rights situation in Zimbabwe,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy director for southern Africa.
But President Mugabe’s government doesn’t appear to care.
Last year, the ZANU-PF leader publicly attacked judges for “reckless” rulings that allowed public protests against his rule, further eroding judicial independence.
He also dismissed a damning report by the ZHRC as “absolutely false” and described its chairperson as “stupid”.
The commission had published a report showing that partisan government officials had denied food aid to opposition supporters. The commission found government had violated rights to equality, non-discrimination, and the right to sufficient food.
President Mugabe’s propagandists are also defending each and every move government has taken, and blaming the victims for inviting trouble for themselves.
Information Communication Technology and Courier Services Minister Supa Mandiwanzira recently said the actions of the State thus far indicated that there was rule of law in Zimbabwe.
“It was very clear that it is very important that the world understands that Zimbabwe is very serious about the rule of law. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are a politician, a traditional leader, a businessman or a church leader, if you break the law, it will take its course,” he said.