(Johannesburg) - Zimbabwe authorities should immediately end their violent crackdown on activists engaging in peaceful demonstrations in Harare, Human Rights Watch said today.
The breakup of a demonstration on October 28, 2008, coincided with a visit by a group from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), including the presidents of Mozambique and South Africa. They were in Zimbabwe seeking to end the political deadlock on sharing power between the country's two main parties, the long-governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
"These arrests and beatings by police controlled by Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF show their continuing lack of good faith in trying to end the political crisis," said Carolyn Norris, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "SADC leaders should tell ZANU-PF that they will not tolerate these abuses."
On October 27, police tear-gassed and beat about 150 activists from the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) and the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) who were holding a peaceful demonstration in Harare. The police arrested 42 women from the WCoZ. The demonstrators were calling for a resolution to the political impasse between ZANU-PF and the MDC so that the country's leaders can address the severe food shortages in the country.
"We are dying of hunger - people have no food," Netsai Mushonga, national coordinator of WCoZ, told Human Rights Watch. "Our demand was for the talks to conclude because people are suffering."
The authorities charged the 42 women with "gathering without police permission" under the Public Order and Security Act. The women were forced to pay on-the-spot fines and were released later that day. At least 35 activists were treated for injuries at hospitals and clinics in Harare, including five who were admitted to hospitals with more severe injuries.
According to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, police should use force only when unavoidable and, even then, should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved. The force used must minimize damage and injury.
Human Rights Watch also expressed serious concern at the continued detention of Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, leaders of the women's rights organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). The two women were arrested on October 16 in Bulawayo when they tried to lead a peaceful demonstration about the serious food shortages in the country. On October 27, the Bulawayo Magistrate's Court denied the women bail, ruling that it would not be in "interests of justice." The women remain in custody at Mlondlozi Female Prison in Bulawayo.
Members of WOZA have been subjected to repeated arrests and detentions for engaging in peaceful demonstrations. Williams and Mahlangu were arrested on May 28, when they attempted to hold a peaceful demonstration calling for an end to the post-election violence in the country. On that occasion, they were held for 37 days.
Zimbabwe's Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Zimbabwe is a party, provide for freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
"The Zimbabwe authorities should release Williams and Mahlangu immediately and allow civil society the right to demonstrate peacefully," said Norris. "It's time they took constitutional guarantees on personal freedoms seriously and ended arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the use of excessive force."