Zimbabwe police brutality under the spotlight

Source: Zimbabwe police brutality under the spotlight | The Financial Gazette September 8, 2016

By Jacob Rukweza
A SHOCKING video clip showing Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) anti-riot officers throwing teargas into a moving commuter omnibus full of passengers in Harare’s central business district has gone viral on the internet, drawing condemnation from people across the world.
Another equally horrifying scene that escaped the smartphone video lenses was that of a teargas canister that landed inside a private car along the capital’s Harare Street.
The driver and passenger had to jump out of the moving vehicle, movie-style, to avoid suffocating, endangering other motorists and bystanders in the process.
Pictures of truncheon wielding police officers savagely attacking an elderly woman at the Harare Magistrates Court have also triggered a social media up-roar with many people variously describing the police action as sadistic, barbaric and over the top.
Similar video footage and photographs capturing unprovoked police brutality against peaceful protesters have made international news headlines, attracting the attention of the global community in the process.
These images of gratuitous police violence against protesting citizens have projected the picture of a country in turmoil — a police State where law enforcement agents have suspended the rule of law in order to clampdown on the rights of citizens.
Rights activists have raised questions about the legality and implications of this violent conduct by ZRP officers.
Two weeks ago, uniformed soldiers also joined the fray on a Friday night, invading Harare night clubs and ruthlessly bludgeoning revellers after police triggered violent protests in the capital earlier in the day, as the government moved to suppress a demonstration by opposition parties.
Eighteen opposition parties including former ZANU-PF stalwart Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) led by Morgan Tsvangirai had obtained a High Court order barring the police from interfering with their intended demonstration.
Opposition parties, converging under the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) banner, wanted to protest against unfair electoral processes, but were violently dispersed by anti-riot police, minutes after the High Court had authorised the demonstration.
The situation turned violent and for more than six hours the police were engaged in running battles with protesters in central Harare.
But as it appeared the police were losing ground, the military took over and spent the rest of the night patrolling the city centre and surrounding areas where they indiscriminately attacked people on the streets, including commercial sex workers.
There seems to be a connection between this unrestrained police brutality and recent warnings by the ZANU-PF government.
A fortnight ago, Home Affairs Minister, Ignatius Chombo, addressed a media conference where government threatened to unleash terror on demonstrators.
Recently, Information, Media and Broadcasting Services permanent secretary and presidential spokesman, George Charamba, also warned that government would not tolerate protests. Speaking on State television, Charamba threatened that government would ruthlessly crush any future demonstrations.
“Let them test the authority of the State and then they will realise that until and unless if you keep within the confines of the law, the full might of the State will visit you,” Charamba said
A shadowy, but authoritative State media columnist, Nathaniel Manheru, has also recently insinuated that government could declare a state of emergency in order to contain protesters.
“The line has been crossed. From now onwards, it shall be another country. This caring world can go hang. We have a country to protect. And govern. After all, we have hit the bottom. We can’t fall,” Manheru wrote in the aftermath of violent protests that rocked the capital recently.
The question that has been raised by rights activists is whether or not the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations by the ZRP is lawful.
Opposition parties argue that their demonstrations, sanctioned by the High Court, are lawful adding that it is the police who are acting unlawfully by ignoring court orders.
On the surface, the brutal actions by the ZRP seems to contradict their mission which is: “To maintain law and order, protect and secure the lives and property of the people and to institute dynamic policing practices that engender effective prevention, investigation and detection of crime.”
Clearly, unprovoked police brutality has put the lives and property of innocent people at risk.
Legal experts have indicated that the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which the police relies on to deal with protests does not give the ZRP powers to permit or block demonstrations.
The Act only requires protesters to notify the police of their intention to demonstrate.
Lawyers have also highlighted that blocking a march that had been allowed by the High Court was evidence that police officers were deliberately violating the law.
However, following an avalanche of protests, the ZRP has unleashed the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA) to suppress dissent.
Under POSA the police have powers to arrest and detain demonstrators or protesters defying a ban, despite a notice of the demonstration or protest having been issued.
Leading Harare lawyer and opposition People’s Democratic Party leader, Tendai Biti, said the behaviour by the police officers was criminal and a violation of international law.
Biti said he was planning to sue rogue ZRP officers in their personal capacities in order to stop the flagrant human rights violations.
“Attacking an unarmed civilian is a war crime. International law needs to be mobilised against these ZANU-PF thugs,” Biti said.
Lawyer and MDC-T vice president, Nelson Chamisa, has also described the police action as unlawful.
The Kuwadzana East Member of Parliament intends to move a motion in Parliament asking the August House to order the Minister of Home Affairs to launch a full investigation into cases of police brutality against protesters.
Civic society organisations have said police blockades against demonstrators are unconstitutional.
Heal Zimbabwe Trust, a civic organisation specialising in peace building, underscored that the freedom to demonstrate and petition is provided for under Section 59 of the Constitution.
In a statement the civic organisation said the increase in the cases of police brutality against protesters had been exacerbated by the lack of an independent body such as the one provided for in Section 210 of the Constitution which allows members of the public to report cases of misconduct on the part of members of the police and security services.
Incidences of unprovoked police brutality across the country have increased over the past few months.
The police violently crushed protests in Beitbridge in July after cross-border traders demonstrated against the banning of a range of imports by government through Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016.
They also used excessive force against commuter omnibus drivers and rank marshals in Harare after they staged a protest in June against the high number of roadblocks and the use of metal tyre spikes by police to control traffic.
In July, the police also used force to break peaceful demonstrations by Harare vendors protesting against municipal police’s heavy-handedness.
The law enforcement agents have also been accused of unlawfully detaining protesters including children in Bulawayo during another round of protests in that city.
Earlier in February, anti-riot police threw teargas canisters and used water cannons and truncheons to violently disperse members of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association who had gathered in Harare demanding to meet their patron, President Robert Mugabe.
Journalists have also been assaulted and routinely arrested while covering demonstrations, despite producing proof that they would be on official duty.
Political activists and some government officials are worried about the implications of the disregard of human rights and the violation of the Constitution by the police.
Images of police brutality circulating in international print, electronic and social media platforms have painted a picture of a government at war with its citizens.
Non-governmental organisations said the wanton violation of the Constitution by the ZRP would make Zimbabwe a pariah State.
A fortnight ago, Cabinet Minister and ZANU-PF Politburo member, Jonathan Moyo, condemned police brutality after pictures of a bleeding protester were splashed in the media following another violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration in Harare.
“Pictures of unlawful violence can change everything for the worst as did this 11 March 2007 Tsvangirai picture!” Moyo tweeted.
The bloodied picture of Tsvangirai after being assaulted by police officers at Machipisa Police Station in Harare was an embarrassment and helped turn the international community against the ZANU-PF government.
University of Zimbabwe political scientist, Eldred Masunungure, said sporadic demonstrations which have rocked the country in the past months have the potential to attract international attention.
Masunungure said the public outcry triggered by the police’s brutal clampdown of peaceful demonstrations would attract direct intervention from the region and the West, which has already castigated the conduct of the Zimbabwe police.
“The Zimbabwean issue could be on the agenda when the Southern African Development Community (SADC) meets, but I see the African Union taking a leading role, extending to the United Nations,” Masunungure said.
This comes after #ThisFlag front man, Evan Mawarire, recently announced that he was organising a demonstration at the United Nations, when the UN General Assembly meets this month, to press the international body to intervene in the Zimbabwe crisis.
Only recently, a group of senior global statesmen known as The Elders called for an inclusive transition in Zimbabwe to restore stability and economic recovery in the midst of the country’s worst crisis since dollarisation in 2009.
Former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, respected cleric, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel — all key members of The Elders — have called on SADC leaders to support a transitional government in Zimbabwe.
The sabre-rattling ZRP has since invoked Statutory Instrument 101 of 2016, under POSA, to ban all demonstrations within central Harare for two weeks, but unrelenting protest organisers have vowed to pile more pressure on the ZANU-PF government.
Opposition political parties operating under the aegis of NERA have challenged the ban in court arguing that the police decree is unconstitutional.
With unrelenting opposition parties promising to up the ante in their fight for electoral reforms, the acts of unbridled police brutality against demonstrators are likely to create more problems than solutions for President Mugabe and his beleaguered ZANU-PF government.
At this rate, the way out for the cornered ZANU-PF government is to halt the mindless bloodletting by its police and urgently call for dialogue with opposition parties that are agitating for comprehensive electoral reforms.