According to the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2021, Zimbabwe’s human rights record continued to decline under Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidency.
With the COVID-19 pandemic amongst us, several violations of rights and freedoms have been recorded since the ascendancy of President Mnangagwa through a military coup with the judiciary being the main weapon used by the state to silence activists and human rights defenders.
In as much as we admit that COVID-19 is real and we have to take all the necessary precautionary measures to contain the pandemic and prevent its spread, it is one of the weapons used by the state to deny citizens their fundamental freedoms of assembly and their right to peaceful protests.
Quite a number of activists have pending cases in court and are being charged for violating COVID-19 regulations
Personally, I was recently acquitted of a February 26, 2021 case, after 10 months of reporting to the courts for what they termed “unnecessary movement during lockdown”.
Here is what transpired on the day in question;
We were walking in the Central Business District (CBD), wearing Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) branded t-shirts and we came across a police officer who had arrested a couple of vendors. The police officer immediately released the vendors and told us he was arresting us for associating with ZINASU. We laughed it off thinking it was a joke and told him that we were on our way to Harare Central Police Law and Order Section to report as part of ZINASU President, Takudzwa Ngadziore’s bail conditions which required him to report to the police every Friday. Ngadziore had been arrested on trumped up charges of participating in a public gathering with intent to cause public violence.
The police officer offered to accompany us and as we approached Harare Central Police Station, he began to assault us and even demanded that we had to be handcuffed. That was when we asked him to clarify the reasons for our arrest and he told us that he was going to clarify with police from the Law and Order Section.
He came back and told us we were being charged for unnecessary movement during lockdown. Other people who had similar charges were released upon payment of fines but our case was treated differently as clear indication that the police had ulterior motives and the issue of violating lockdown regulations was just but an excuse
We were detained overnight and charged with unnecessary movement and the police pressed charges of participating in an illegal gathering against us.
I was released the following day but four of my colleagues are yet to be tried after almost a year of reporting to the police and appearing before the courts. This clearly indicates that the state wants to keep them close and prohibit them from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights. A number of activists and human rights defenders have pending cases in courts in which they are being charged for violating COVID-19 regulations and the state continues to play delaying tactics to prolong their trials. This shows that the state enjoys keeping all activists occupied with court activities. In some instances, activists are locked up and detained for long periods without trial.
Some activists and human rights defenders are facing politically motivated charges. A clear example is the case of opposition Citizens Coalition for Change activist; Makomborero Haruzivishe who endured almost a year in prison on politically motivated charges.
The cost of living in Zimbabwe is unbearable to the general citizenry, with inflation on the peak, basic goods being charged in US dollars whilst salaries are pegged in local currency. Challenging this in whatever constitutional means is punishable due to political polarisation, which has often resulted in those who choose to question authorities and hold them to account being labeled regime change agents.
We are all stuck in an “us versus them” political matrix where even if a civilian questions the government, they are likely to face severe punishment. For example ahead of the 31 July 2020 demonstrations against the high cost of living, a student from the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Methembe Msipha was arrested for holding the national flag in a supermarket and she was detained overnight. A group of MDCA youths were arrested for protesting against the economic crises in 2020 and they were charged with violating lockdown regulations.
There is also a recent trend of enforced disappearances and perpetrators AND perpetrators continue to roam around freely. People get abducted and tortured but the state instead charges victims publishing falsehoods. This is the case of Citizens Coalition for Change activists; Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova who were abducted and subjected to torture but they were later arrested for communicating falsehoods.
Takudzwa Ngadziore the former ZINASU president also faced a similar situation when he was beaten, tortured and assaulted by thugs in ZANU PF regalia who dropped him at Harare Central Police Station only for him to be charged for addressing the media regarding issues of enforced disappearances and torture.
Events in Zimbabwe show that the police and the judiciary operate under political orders and lack the mandated independence and impartiality. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission has apparently failed to adequately investigate issues of human rights abuses.
The Motlanthe Commission gave recommendations after the 2018 arbitrary killings of civilians by the state security forces but these were never implemented.
Prison conditions are unbearable, especially for women. At police cells, people are locked up all day in a cell that has a toilet which is never cleaned. The corridors will be flooded with urine and prisoners are forced to walk bare footed. Cells will be overpopulated, with no proper ventilation during this COVID-19 era and a lot of people, who get the opportunity to take COVID-19 tests usually test positive. In 2019, a prisoner, Hilton Tamangani died in cells and no investigations were done to ascertain the cause of his death.
The government is coming up with a raft of measures meant to interfere with people’s privacy and closing up the civic space and this includes the Cyber Protection Bill and the PVO Amendment Bill.
In conclusion, I would recommend that civil society and the international community must push for the independence of the judiciary, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Zimbabwe Republic Police. Restoration of freedoms of assembly and association goes hand in hand with other rights like the right to education, water and sanitation and health.
Citizens must be able to freely express themselves and hold authorities to account!