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At least 1,000 Zimbabweans Arrested During January Protests are Still Behind Bars

A woman crosses the street in front of minibus taxis in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo - S1AETYOPMLAA
A woman crosses the street in front of minibus taxis in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo - S1AETYOPMLAA

As many as 995 protesters have been denied bail and continue to languish in prison. Recent reports have revealed the extent of cruelty by security forces on the people of the country, as well as the targeting of leaders of trade unions and social movements.

(By Pavan Kulkarni, Peoples Dispatch) Most of the over 1,000 people arrested en masse during the crackdown by Zimbabwe’s security forces on the protests in mid-January continue to remain in detention. The protests were triggered by the government’s announcement of a 150% hike in fuel price.

Out of the 1,055 people who were detained during the mass arrests between January 14 and 19, 80 were convicted on March 12, and 60 were acquitted. A total of 995 detainees have been denied bail, and continue to remain in custody, according to a response by the Chief Justice of Zimbabwe Luke Malaba to a petition filed by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).

During this period, over 80 people with bullet injuries were provided emergency medical care by Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR). The association was threatened by president Emmerson Mnangagwa at a public rally last month for treating injured protesters.

The violence that the security forces unleashed was documented last week by the Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report is based on interviews with 45 victims, their family members and witnesses to the abuse of power by security forces, who killed at least 14 men and three women, and raped another 17.

The report reveals that many of the killings and injuries were deliberate and arbitrary acts by security personnel in the areas of Epworth, Chitungwiza, as well as Harare’s Mbare and Warren Park suburbs.

One of the victims from Warren Park, Innocent Masengu, was apparently not a part of the protest but was brutally beaten up and left bleeding on the roadside, according to the testimony of a relative who witnessed the assault. When he died, it was falsely declared to be a case of assault while mugging.

In the capital city of Harare, Morris Mukunga, a bus driver, gave the following testimony to HRW:

“I had one passenger on board, and one conductor assisting me. I thought the soldiers would not shoot at a public transport vehicle with passengers on board, but the soldiers kept firing. They drove faster, came to the driver’s side, and shot at me through the door. Suddenly I felt like an electric shock to my right leg. I tried to control the vehicle to avoid crashing into houses. I eventually crashed into a tree, but the soldiers kept coming, shouting at me to come out of the bus, as they crashed the windscreen with their rifle butts. They then dragged me out, pointing their guns at me. I saw I was bleeding a lot, and just before I passed out, I saw the soldiers beating my conductor and the passenger. When I woke up, I was in Harare hospital. My right leg had been amputated below the knee.”

Mukunga can no longer earn his livelihood as a bus driver. “I can no longer drive.. I am now unemployed and destitute, with a huge medical bill,” he lamented.

30 kilometers to the south of Harare, in the town of Chitungwiza, 30 minors, aged 11 to 17, and another six youngsters between the age of 18 and 23 were dragged out of their houses and arrested on January 14.

“In separate interviews, 12 boys said that armed soldiers dragged them out of their homes, beat them, and ordered them to roll in the mud on the streets, accusing them of having looted shops. For the next three days, security forces beat them three times a day – in the morning, afternoon, and evening after meals, forcing them to confess to looting shops. All 36 were later released without being charged,” the report stated.

Cases of armed personnel barging into residences and raping women in front of their children have also been documented. One woman who survived such atrocities told HRW that the security personnel told her that she was being raped as a “punishment to make her “tell the truth” about her husband’s possible involvement in opposition politics.”

While in many cases, such atrocities may have been committed randomly by security personnel well-assured of their impunity, the attacks on leaders of popular movements and unions appear to have been carried out in a planned manner.

Barely two days after the protests erupted, pastor Evan Mawarire, leader of #ThisFlag movement, was arrested and charged with subversion of constitutional government and inciting violence. The movement had played a crucial role in forcing the previous president, Robert Mugabe, out of power. The same charges were filed against a number of union leaders over the following days.

On January 19, security personnel broke into the house of Obert Masaraure, national president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ). Beating him with rifle butts and heavy leather whips, they demanded to know the union’s source of funding. They later dragged him out of his house and locked him inside the trunk of a car in which he was driven to Central Harare police station.

Two days later, Japhet Moyo, general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was also arrested. The ZCTU, in response to the fuel price hike, had given a call for a three-day peaceful strike, in which workers were urged to stay home, rather than take to the streets where little restraint was shown by security forces. The union’s president, Peter Mutasa, was also arrested on January 25, inviting strong criticism from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

When the ITUC’s letter to Zimbabwe’s President failed to convince the government to drop the charges, its general Secretary for Africa, Kwasi Adu Amankwah, flew to the country late last month to meet the ZCTU leaders and the Labour Minister. Adu Amankwah was also arrested.

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