Itai Dzamara stands in Harare's Africa Unity Square, holding a banner that calls on President Robert Mugabe to step down.

© Kumbirai Mafunda, October 2014

(Johannesburg) – Zimbabwe authorities should urgently provide information on the whereabouts of a prominent human rights activist, Itai Dzamara, Human Rights Watch said today. Five armed men abducted Dzamara on March 9, 2015. He has not been heard from since, raising grave concerns that he has been forcibly disappeared.

Family members told Human Rights Watch that state security agents had repeatedly threatened Dzamara prior to his abduction, warning him that something would happen if he did not halt his activism. Authorities have denied involvement in his abduction.

“Zimbabwe authorities appear to be doing nothing to find Itai Dzamara, increasing concerns about his safety,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The threats against Dzamara by state security agents are a red flag for Zimbabwe’s international allies to press the government to come clean about what happened to him.” 

Dzamara, a 36-year-old journalist and human rights activist, is a leader of the Occupy Africa Unity Square protest group. He has led a number of peaceful protests against the deteriorating political and economic environment in Zimbabwe, petitioned President Robert Mugabe to resign to allow for fresh elections, and called for reforms to the electoral system.

On several occasions in 2014 and 2015, police and supporters of Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party assaulted Dzamara. During a peaceful protest in November 2014, about 20 uniformed police handcuffed and beat Dzamara unconscious with batons. When his lawyer, Kennedy Masiye, tried to intervene, the police beat him as well, breaking his arm. Both were hospitalized.

Two days before he was abducted, Dzamara addressed a political rally organized by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), calling for mass protests against worsening repression and economic conditions in Zimbabwe. 

On March 9, 2015, at about 10 a.m., the five unidentified men dragged Dzamara out of the barber shop where he was having his hair cut near his home in the Glenview suburb of Harare, the capital. The men handcuffed him, forced him into a white pickup truck, and drove off, witnesses said.

Zimbabwe authorities have denied any government involvement in the abduction. On April 10, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, in response to a Human Rights Watch inquiry about Dzamara’s whereabouts, tweeted, “I don’t know, and I have no basis for knowing.”

On March 13, Dzamara’s wife, Sheffra Dzamara, approached the high court in Harare to compel state authorities to search for her husband. Judge David Mangota ordered the home affairs minister, the police commissioner-general, and the director-general of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) “to do all things necessary to determine his whereabouts.” The ruling included an order to advertise on all state media and work closely with lawyers appointed by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights to search for Dzamara “at all such places as may be within their jurisdiction.” The judge ordered the government to report to the court every two weeks on its progress with the case until Dzamara is found.

Senior state security officials have yet to comply with the High Court’s orders.

On April 25, activists organized a car procession to raise awareness about Dzamara’s presumed enforced disappearance. Police arrested 11 of the activists and detained them for six hours, then released them without charge.

Sheffra Dzamara reported in early April that unidentified men were keeping her under constant surveillance and that she feared for her life. Zimbabwean authorities should immediately take steps to ensure the safety of Dzamara’s wife and children, Human Rights Watch said.

Human rights activists in Zimbabwe face severe restrictions on their work. Police frequently misuse laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) to ban lawful public meetings and gatherings. Opposition and other activists are unjustly prosecuted under these laws. The government should repeal or appropriately amend both laws to bring them in line with the new constitution and Zimbabwe’s obligations under international law.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Zimbabwe is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.

“The Zimbabwean government should immediately establish Dzamara’s whereabouts, and ensure the protection of all his rights,” Mavhinga said. “Failure to do so would demonstrate to the world that Zimbabwe’s poor human rights record has not improved.”