(Harare) - A police raid and apparently politically motivated arrests at the offices of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) is an attack on all human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, a group of five international organizations said today in a letter to Margaret Sekaggya, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders.
A trial is set for June 10, 2010, for two persons arrested in a raid at the GALZ offices in Harare on May 21. The arrests occurred shortly before the opening of a national Constitutional Reform Outreach Program, through which GALZ is seeking to remove discriminatory provisions and secure constitutional protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The five human rights organizations believe that the context in which the raid and arrests occurred raises serious concerns that they were politically motivated.
"It is troubling - and ironic - that the government is persecuting people who are seeking to protect the rights of all Zimbabweans through the constitution," said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch. "This assault on the LGBT community threatens everyone in the country who is working for human rights."
In the raid on May 21, the police arrested a GALZ staff member, Ellen Chadenama, and a visitor to the offices, Ignatius Mhambi, charging them with possession of "dangerous drugs" and "pornographic material," and confiscating educational material. On May 24, a Zimbabwean magistrate's court added the charge of "undermining authority of or insulting [the] president" because the GALZ office displayed a placard that made a critical reference to President Robert Mugabe. Two days later, police searched the house of the acting director of GALZ, confiscating his birth certificate, several GALZ magazines, books, and business cards. The magistrate court in Harare granted bail to Chadenama and Mhambi on May 27 after they spent six days in detention.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), which is providing legal assistance to GALZ, said that Mhambi and Chadenama stated being physically assaulted by the police while in custody. Mhambi said that police hit him with empty glass bottles on his knees. Both told the lawyers' group that the police forced them to "sit in the air" - crouching in an uncomfortable position - for a long period of time.
"This is not the first time a state has used antiquated public decency laws to garner public support for intimidation and harassment of legitimate sexual rights work," said Shaun Kirven, advocacy officer at Protection International. "These attacks only inflame public intolerance and prevent the international community from taking action against state-sponsored homo and transphobia."
Other GALZ staff members, including some who were out of Zimbabwe at the time of the arrests, are afraid to return home or to the GALZ office, and the work of the organization has effectively been halted, the human rights groups said. GALZ, the only organization of its kind in the country, provides critical HIV/AIDS and psychological support and services to the LGBT community in Zimbabwe.
"The raid on GALZ and the arrests and charges severely impede the work of an organization that provides life-saving services to a marginalized population," said Chivuli Ukwimi, health and human rights officer at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "It is time for the government of Zimbabwe to deliver on its promise of equality and justice to all members of society."
In their letter, the human rights organizations called on Sekaggya and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate the raid on GALZ and the prosecution and alleged ill-tratment of Mhambi and Chadehama.
"This is a cynical and revealing move by Mugabe's camp to exploit the fact that the international community is in ‘wait-and-see' mode vis-à-vis the unity government, which has also left the opposition toothless and vulnerable," said Lisa Veneklasen, executive director of JASS.
Government-sanctioned homophobia has led to attacks against GALZ in the past. In 1995, GALZ was denied permission to participate in the Zimbabwe International Book Fair because of government pressure. In May 1998, the state-controlled Sunday Mail published a front-page article accusing GALZ of running a brothel from its office and of showing pornographic videos. Subsequently, the same paper accused GALZ of holding "rowdy parties" featuring "public indecency." In no instance was there any evidence to support the allegations.
Speaking at a ceremony marking International Women's Day earlier this year, President Mugabe said, "Those who engage in homosexual behavior are just crazy." In the past, Mugabe has compared homosexuals to pigs and dogs and has stated that homosexuality "degrades human dignity."
The 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on states to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the Declaration."
The letter was signed by the following organizations:
Human Rights Watch
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission