The government of Zimbabwe has permitted security forces to commit serious abuses with impunity against opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans alike, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces are responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions and beatings of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters, civil society activists, and the general public.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state are meeting today at an extraordinary summit in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania to discuss, among other issues, the political situation in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is scheduled to attend the meeting. Human Rights Watch called on the sub-regional organization to take strong measures to address the escalating crisis.

“The government of Zimbabwe has intensified its brutal suppression of its own citizens in an effort to crush all forms of dissent,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The crackdown shows the government has extended its attack on political dissent to ordinary Zimbabweans, which should prompt the SADC to act quickly.”

Human Rights Watch recently spent two weeks in Zimbabwe interviewing many victims of abuse and witnesses to the political unrest in the cities of Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare. Witnesses and victims from Harare’s high-density suburbs of Glenview, Highfield and Mufakose told Human Rights Watch that for the past few weeks police forces patrolling these locations have randomly and viciously beaten Zimbabweans in the streets, shopping malls, and in bars and beer halls.

Police forces have also gone house-to-house beating people with batons, stealing possessions and accusing them of supporting the opposition. The terror caused by the police has forced many families in the affected areas into a self-imposed curfew after dark.

The recent escalation of political unrest in Zimbabwe began when police imposed a three-month ban on all political rallies and meetings in Harare on February 21, 2007. The opposition MDC and civil society activists vowed to defy the ban. Since then, hundreds of MDC members, including its leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and civil society activists have been arrested and detained around the country. On March 15, for example, 14 MDC members were arrested in Bulwayo for failing to notify the police about plans to organize a demonstration. They were released without charge the following day. On March 16, four students were arrested at the University of Zimbabwe campus and accused by police of being “security threats” before being released on the same day without charge.

The violent police disruption of a prayer meeting organized by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign on March 11, and the subsequent arrest of MDC and civil society activists, led to skirmishes between opposition members and security forces in several high-density surburbs in Harare. According to police reports, three police officers were injured in a clash with opposition members before the prayer meeting. Police reports published in the state-run Herald newspaper also alleged that MDC activists had engaged in acts of violence, including the petrol bombing of several police stations around the country, which in one case severely burned three police officers. These events have triggered a brutal government backlash against activists and ordinary Zimbabweans.

“The government ought to prosecute those accused of violent acts but it shouldn’t respond to political unrest with ever more brutal and excessive force,” said Gagnon.

On March 14, police severely beat 10 employees of a local store in Mufakose, Harare. The shop manager told Human Rights Watch:

The police who attacked us were more than 50. They hit us just outside the store as we were locking up for the night and leaving. More than eight vehicles of police came and they said ‘everybody sit down.’ We were dressed in our store uniform. I tried to negotiate with them to say we were just employees but the first one beat me with a baton and I sat down. They hit me on my leg and my shoulder was also hurt. They were beating us with batons, rifle butts and they were kicking us.... They were saying ‘you are MDC people.’ We are now so scared.

In another case on March 14, one man told Human Rights Watch how a group of 12 policemen brutally assaulted him at a bar in Glenview, Harare:

I was accosted by one policeman who told me to come outside. But when I got outside there were two more policemen armed with batons and they begun to beat me. They beat me thouroughly and then they told me to go but I fell down and they started beating me again. They were joined by other policemen and there was now a chain of policemen beating me with batons and kicking me in the ribs everywhere. They were telling me ‘you are beating policemen, don’t do that.’ I told them that I didn’t know anything about beating policemen but they continued hitting me. I fell unconscious and when I woke up I was taken to Harare central hospital where they took an x-ray. They found I had a broken arm and badly bruised ribs.

A 15-year-old girl and her mother were abducted on March 19 at Warren Park D in Harare by a group of unknown persons, they alleged to be government supporters. The girl described her ordeal to Human Rights Watch:

We were put into a car and blindfolded and we didn’t know where we were going. Then they put us into another vehicle. I think it was an open truck. They took us to Mount Hampden and we were taken out of the car and badly beaten with clenched fists and kicked while we were there. They were saying ‘your father is an MDC supporter and you are the ladies of Women of Zimbabwe Arise and that is why we are beating you up.’ We were hit on our heads, our backs, our legs, everywhere. We were just beaten up very badly. We haven’t reported the case to the police because it is no use. They will just arrest us again because those people who beat us are part of that. It’s no use.

The girl and other victims of similar abuses told Human Rights Watch that they believe members of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization, members of the ruling ZANU-PF party and its ‘youth militia,’ were the likely perpetrators of these abuses and other acts of intimidation, abduction and assault of opposition members and civil society activists.

“The government should investigate and if necessary punish abuses by the security forces,” said Gagnon.

The Zimbabwean government has legal obligations under several international and African human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which require it to respect the right to life and to physical integrity, as well as the freedoms of association, expression and assembly. Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure respect for these obligations, and launch an immediate and independent investigation into abuses by security forces around the country.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Zimbabwean security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations. The principles state that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duties, apply nonviolent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern that the SADC has so far failed to make a concerted effort to address the Zimbabwean government’s repeated violations of fundamental human rights. Zimbabwe is a member state of the SADC and all member states commit themselves to respect human rights.

“The Zimbabwe government’s flagrant violations of its citizens’ rights have contributed to the country’s political crisis,” said Gagnon. “Southern African leaders’ failure to take strong action over Zimbabwe would be a betrayal of the SADC’s commitment to protect and respect human rights.”

Human Rights Watch called on SADC leaders to:

  • Strongly condemn and demand an end to all human rights abuses committed in Zimbabwe, including the recent acts of violence and brutality by security forces against Zimabweans, impunity for police abuse, arbitrary arrests and detentions of opposition supporters and civil society activists, and the general climate of repression faced by Zimbabwe’s citizens.
  • Consistently and publicly condemn any further abuses committed by the Zimbabwean authorities, such as refusals to allow political opposition rallies and other acts of political repression. The SADC should stand united in publicly demanding greater respect for freedom of assembly, association, and expression in Zimbabwe.
  • Call on the Zimbabwean government to establish an independent commission of inquiry with participation from the SADC into recent abuses by security forces.

“The time has come for Southern African leaders to work together to ensure the crisis in Zimbabwe doesn’t destabilize the entire region.”