(Johannesburg) - The Zimbabwe authorities should immediately free 32 opposition party members and rights activists unlawfully detained and disclose the whereabouts of 11 others, Human Rights Watch said today. Many among those whose status has been revealed by the government have reported being tortured in detention.
From October through December 2008, state security forces throughout Zimbabwe arbitrarily arrested 43 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and human rights activists, including the prominent activist Jestina Mukoko.
"Zimbabwe authorities are putting lives at risk by secretly detaining MDC members and rights activists," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Those unlawfully held should be freed immediately."
The police initially denied holding the activists, but on December 22 their lawyers were tipped off that 32 of them were being held in various police stations in the capital, Harare. The activists had been unlawfully held by security forces for periods ranging from two weeks to eight in secret detention centers. None had been brought before a court within 48 hours, as required by law.
Zimbabwe authorities have accused the activists of various acts of banditry and of trying to recruit individuals for training in banditry and insurgency. However, the authorities have formally charged only seven activists.
The detained activists told their lawyers that during their secret detention, state security agents had subjected them to beatings and other torture. They were forced to make false confessions to acts of sabotage, banditry and terrorism and to recruiting others to do the same. For example, Mukoko told her lawyers that, during her 19-day secret detention, Central Intelligence Organization agents and police officers repeatedly beat the soles of her feet with rubber truncheons, forced her to kneel on gravel for hours under interrogation and threatened her with death. Mukoko also said that she was forced to make videotaped statements falsely indicating that she had been recruiting people to overthrow the government.
"The continuing detention of the 32 MDC members and rights activists appears to be a clumsy pretext to clamp down on government critics," said Gagnon. "The credible reports of duress and torture to obtain ‘confessions' raise grave doubts that any trials of these detainees could be fair. No court should admit evidence extracted by torture."
Lawyers for the detainees told Human Rights Watch that they have not been able to communicate and consult confidentially with their clients as police and prison officials insist on being present during all interviews. The detainees have also been denied access to medical treatment despite a High Court order directing that they should have access to medical examination and treatment and to doctors of their choice. Lawyers also report that there have been numerous and inexplicable delays in hearing the cases of the detainees in court.
The authorities are also refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 11 other MDC members. On December 31, Acting Minister of State for National Security Didymus Mutasa submitted an affidavit in court proceedings stating that state security agents had taken the men into custody.
Human Rights Watch called on the Zimbabwe authorities to disclose their whereabouts immediately and to free all arbitrarily detained persons. The authorities should ensure that those in custody have full access to their lawyers and are able to communicate confidentially with them. Further, the authorities should ensure that all those in custody who require medical examination and treatment are able to get this assistance without hindrance.
"Zimbabwe authorities admit to abducting the 11 political activists and yet continue to profess ignorance as to their whereabouts," said Gagnon. "Those responsible are committing a crime, and they should produce the men immediately."
These arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances began on October 29, when 15 MDC members - including a woman and her 2-year-old child - were abducted from their homes in Banket, Mashonaland West. The whereabouts of 11 members of this group remain undisclosed, effectively making them "disappeared."
On December 3, Jestina Mukoko, a leading human rights activist and director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), was taken from her home in Norton at around 5 a.m. by at least 15 men who identified themselves as working for the Law and Order section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police Force. Zachariah Nkomo, the brother of Harrison Nkomo, a human rights lawyer working for Mukoko's release, was abducted at his home in Rujeko, Masvingo province, around midnight on December 5 by four unidentified men in civilian clothes.
On December 8, two colleagues of Mukoko, Pascal Gonzo, a ZPP driver and Broderick Takawira, ZPP's provincial coordinator, were abducted by five unidentified men who forcibly entered the ZPP premises in Mount Pleasant, Harare. Another MDC activist, Ghandi Mudzingwa, was abducted by unidentified men in Harare on the same day.
The other 24 people were all MDC activists detained in various locations since December 8, 2008.