Zambian immigration authorities today rejected a claim of asylum by Tendai Biti, a leading figure in the MDC Alliance opposition party who fled post-election violence and certain arrest in Zimbabwe.
Zambia also rejected claims by five others travelling with Biti – lawyer Nqobizitha Mlilo, civil society activist Zachariah Godi, and opposition activists Tawanda Chitekwe, Kudakwashe Simbaneuta, and Clever Rambanepasi – who lodged their application for asylum at the Chirundu border post.
The six fled the violent security forces’ crackdown in Zimbabwe that has followed post-election protests on August 1. The Zimbabwe police issued an arrest warrant for Biti on trumped-up charges of public violence and allegedly declaring opposition leader Nelson Chamisa the winner of the presidential election in contravention of electoral laws.
Biti told Human Rights Watch by phone that the Zambian authorities told him and his five companions that there were no grounds to grant them asylum and were planning to deport them back to Zimbabwe. Biti asked Human Rights Watch to help seek the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) urgent intervention to prevent his forced return to Zimbabwe where he fears for his life. If forcibly returned to Zimbabwe, Biti and his colleagues are at grave risk of political persecution, torture, or even death. If Zambia proceeds with the deportation it will violate its obligations under international law, including several treaties binding on it, that prohibit the return of any person to a country where they face a real risk of torture or other ill treatment (the principle of non-refoulment).
“It looks like they [Zambian Immigration Officials] have made a decision to hand us back to the Junta. We are truly in God’s hands,” Biti said. Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri is assisting the six to lodge an appeal in court against rejection of asylum and to stop deportation to Zimbabwe from Chirundu where the six are being held by Immigration officials.
Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of abductions, beatings, and harassment of third parties by security forces and unidentified armed men on the trail of senior opposition MDC Alliance officials in Harare since the election. Zimbabwe authorities have turned a blind eye to these abuses and have neglected to take steps to halt the abuses or hold those responsible to account.
Now is the time for regional institutions like the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Africa Union, and the wider international community to urgently press the Zimbabwe authorities to end the crackdown and to guarantee the safety and rights of all citizens irrespective of their political affiliations, including Biti and his five colleagues. This includes respecting the rights of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe and the principle of non-refoulment, and not forcibly returning Biti and his colleagues or others to Zimbabwe without guarantees of their safety from political persecution.