(Johannesburg) - The authorities in Zimbabwe should immediately free and drop criminal charges against 15 human rights activists and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party members who were ordered back into custody on May 5, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch said that the cases were politically motivated. All had been abducted in late 2008 by officials loyal to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), a party to Zimbabwe's power-sharing administration with the MDC. On May 5, a magistrate in Harare formally charged the 15 with various acts of banditry and trying to recruit people for training in banditry, sabotage and insurgency, and revoked their bail. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that the "evidence" filed to support these charges was extracted under torture.
"Those who brought these outrageous charges should quickly drop them," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This continued persecution makes it pretty clear that ZANU-PF is trying to undermine the new power-sharing administration and is an example of Zimbabwe's overall lack of progress in respecting the rule of law and basic rights."
Zimbabwe's prosecuting authorities and key police and prison units remain under ZANU-PF control. Following their abduction in 2008, the 15 were held in secret detention for periods ranging from two to eight weeks before being handed over to the police. None of them was brought to court within 48 hours of arrest, as required by Zimbabwe law. The 15 were only granted restricted bail in February and March 2009 pending indictment and trial.
Human Rights Watch believes that these prosecutions are a politically motivated attempt by ZANU-PF to pressure the MDC into making concessions that will further weaken its power within the government. Human Rights Watch has already urged the Zimbabwe authorities to disclose immediately the whereabouts of seven "disappeared" activists who were abducted by suspected state agents in late 2008 and who are still missing (see below).
Lawyers representing the activists who were charged on May 5 have also recorded testimony from each of them alleging that they were tortured while in police custody. The state authorities have not investigated the allegations, let alone arrested or prosecuted the perpetrators, even though they were named in the testimony. Torture is a crime both in Zimbabwe and international law, and evidence obtained through the use of torture is not admissible in a Zimbabwean court.
"The new government in Harare will only attract much-needed international financial support when the authorities demonstrate an unambiguous commitment to the rule of law and a willingness to prosecute those who abuse the law for political ends," said Gagnon. "Releasing the 15 activists and dropping all charges against them would be a start. Instead, ZANU-PF continues to use them as pawns in its political games."
Background on the abductions
The 15 activists are: Jestina Mukoko, Chris Dhlamini, Anderson Shadreck Manyere, Ghandi Mudzingwa, Concillia Chinanzvavana, Emmanuel Chinanzvavana, Violet Mupfuranhehwe, Collen Mutemagawu, Mapfumo Garutsa, Chinoto Mukwezaremba Zulu, Zacharia Nkomo, Audrey Zimbudzana, Regis Mujeyi, Broderick Takawira, and Fidelis Chiramba.
The 15 were part of a group of 43 activists arbitrarily arrested by state security forces from October to December 2008. Police initially denied holding them, but on December 22 lawyers were tipped off that 32 of them were being held in various police stations in the capital, Harare.
Seven are still missing and unaccounted for: Gwenzi Kahiya, Ephraim Mabeka, Lovemore Machokoto, Charles Muza, Edmore Vangirayi, Graham Matehwa, and Peter Munyanyi.
Others among the 43 have been freed at various points in 2009, including a 2-year-old child. Several still have charges pending and some also allege that they were tortured in custody.