(Johannesburg) - Authorities controlled by the Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the dominant party in Zimbabwe's power-sharing government, should drop politically motivated charges and release activists arrested for viewing a video on events in Egypt and Tunisia, Human Rights Watch said today. The 46 people were arrested on February 19, 2011.
In recent weeks, the authorities have stepped up their intimidation of civil society activists and attacks against perceived government opponents. The attacks and intimidation underscore the need for human rights improvements before the national elections proposed for this year, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Zimbabwe authorities should immediately free the activists and drop these outrageous charges," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Arresting people for watching a video on the historic events in the Middle East is a transparent pretext to block peaceful criticism of the government."
The February 19 arrests took place after police raided an academic meeting in Harare at which a video on events in Tunisia and Egypt was shown. The police confiscated computers and other equipment and arrested everyone there, including Munyaradzi Gwisai, a labor activist, and Hopewell Gumbo, a social justice activist. A relative of one of the arrested activists who was able to speak to him while he was in custody told Human Rights Watch that he said the police beat some of those arrested during their first two days in custody.
Forty-five of the 46 activists were formally charged either with treason or with attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means. Conviction for treason under the law, section 20 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, carries a penalty of life in prison or death. Conviction for attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means, section 22(2) (a)(i) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Lawyers informed Human Rights Watch that they were initially denied access to those detained.
Since President Robert Mugabe declared that ZANU-PF, his party, was ready to hold elections this year, attacks around the country by ZANU-PF against supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, have increased. ZANU-PF and the two factions of the MDC share power in the current government.
Credible sources from civil society informed Human Rights Watch that in recent months, ZANU-PF youth have attacked scores of people, mainly MDC supporters, in the high-density neighborhoods of Harare, as well as areas outside of Harare such as Chitungwiza, Gutu, and Bikita. Local civil society organizations alleged that the police were arresting the victims of the violence - many of whom are from the MDC - instead of the perpetrators, who they say are mainly from ZANU-PF.
Over several days of violence in early February, several MDC supporters were injured and some hospitalized as a result of attacks by alleged ZANU-PF youth in Mbare. Police later arrested 19 MDC supporters and accused them of inciting the violence. They were eventually released on bail. On February 15, in a separate incident, police arrested an MDC Member of Parliament, Douglas Mwonzora, in Harare and 23 others in Nyanga, Manicaland province, on charges of public violence. Police accused them of assaulting ZANU-PF supporters during a meeting in Nyanga.
A local magistrate in Nyanga granted Mwonzora and the others bail on February 21, but the prosecutor invoked section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, which allows the state to appeal to suspend bail for 7 days pending further investigations. Mwonzora and the others remain in police custody. Local civil society organizations informed Human Rights Watch that they believed the charges against Mwonzora and the others were trumped up and designed to intimidate MDC members.
"All parties to Zimbabwe's power-sharing government should be condemning this dangerous intensification of violence and prosecuting those responsible without regard to their party membership," Bekele said. "Arresting the victims adds insult to injury and encourages more violence."
Police have also arrested, intimidated, and harassed members of local human rights organizations. For example, on February 8, police arrested two employees of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in the Highfields neighborhood in Harare as they tried to conduct a survey on transitional justice. They were taken to Machipisa police station and later released without charge.
On the following day, police summoned the director of the group, Abel Chikomo, and questioned him for six hours at Machipisa and Harare Central Police stations about the organization's activities, including its involvement in the research project on transitional justice. Police also raided and searched the group's offices.
On February 9, six unidentified men, believed to be from the Central Intelligence Organization, raided the offices of the Youth Forum in Harare. The Youth Forum has a campaign encouraging youth to register to vote during elections. The men demanded to know why the Youth Forum was encouraging youths to register to vote and later left the offices.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC), the intergovernmental body that has played a leading role in dealing with the political crisis in Zimbabwe, should intensify efforts to press for an immediate improvement in human rights conditions, Human Rights Watch said.
"SADC leaders should recognize that the increased violence in Zimbabwe in recent months is likely to worsen prior to elections unless they act quickly and forcefully to push for an end to abuses," Bekele said.