HARARE-Lying on a hospital bed, Cecilia Chimbiri writhed in pain and sometimes struggled for breath. But she was determined to tell her story – one that had a similar ring to several others told by human rights defenders (HRDs) tortured by suspected state security agents in recent weeks and months.“They forced us to drink urine. They beat us under our feet, (and on) my back. They were also beating us with bare hands. But most of all, they violated me. They sexually assaulted me…I thought they wanted to rape me,” she said recently.
Chimbiri had been abducted together with Harare West legislator Hon. Joannah Mamombe and activist Netsai Marova. Their lawyers from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said they were picked up at a roadblock near the city centre and taken to Harare Central Police Station. From there, they were bundled into a Toyota Wish and taken to an unknown location where they were severely tortured and accused of promoting civil unrest.
The activists, who also said they suffered sexual abuse, had allegedly participated in a protest march against the government’s lethargic response to coronavirus. Worryingly for local and international HRDs, such abductions and torture have become a pattern since independence in 1980. This is a concern for local and international HRDs as the country joined the world in commemorating the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
In June this year, a group of United Nations (UN) human rights experts expressed “grave alarm over concerns” that the abduction and torture of the activists was not an isolated incident. They noted that in 2019 alone, 49 cases of abductions and torture were reported in Zimbabwe, “without investigations leading to perpetrators being held to account.” The experts included the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences and the U.N Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Zimbabwe, they said, should “immediately end a reported pattern of disappearances and torture that appear aimed at suppressing protests and dissent.
“The United Nations in 1997 proclaimed 26 June the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture “with a view to the total eradication of torture and the effective functioning of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”As Zimbabwe marked International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the abduction and torture of the MDC Alliance activists served as a reminder of the hazards often faced by HRDs in Zimbabwe.
This is despite the adoption of a new Constitution viewed as progressive in 2013 and the coming in of a new government and a president who promised “a flowering of democracy” upon assuming power. Zimbabwe is yet to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment despite promising to do so on several occasions and Parliament passing a resolution in 2001 that Zimbabwe should be a party to the convention.“The lack of commitment to eradicate the culture of torture by government is glaring. Government has in the past accepted recommendations made by several United Nations member states to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its optional Protocol. This recommendation was accepted during the first cycle review in 2011 of the United Nations Human Rights Council-led Universal Periodic Review Mechanism. In November 2016 during the second cycle review, this recommendation was made again as it had not been implemented.
Government proceeded to reject this recommendation in March 2017. Human rights defenders deprived of their liberty during the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic have faced increased risks by being subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of provisions of the Constitution which outlaws this practice in section 53,” said ZLHR Executive Director Roselyn Hanzi.