(Johannesburg) – Zimbabwe security forces used excessive lethal force to crush nationwide protests in mid-January 2019. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s sudden announcement of a fuel price increase of 150 percent resulted in three days of demonstrations throughout Zimbabwe in which security forces fired live ammunition, killing 17 people, and raped at least 17 women.
Zimbabwe authorities should halt ongoing abuses, release those detained arbitrarily, and appropriately prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
“Zimbabwe security forces carried out killings, rape, torture and other grave abuses- during and since the January protests,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should arrest and prosecute those responsible for abuses and send a strong message that crimes by the security forces won’t be tolerated.”
While the protests have ended, the security force crackdown continues mainly in Harare, the capital. The government’s failure to address the issues underlying the protests, including the hike in fuel prices, means the situation could deteriorate further, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on interviews with 45 victims of abuses and their family members, witnesses, activists, medical personnel, lawyers, police officers, and others during a research trip to Harare, Epworth, and Chitungwiza in February, and phone interviews since January.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) told Human Rights Watch that they provided emergency medical services to 81 people with gunshot injuries in Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru, Karoi, Chinhoyi, Chitungwiza, Kadoma, and Mutare between January 14 and January 29. Among those killed was 22-year-old footballer Kelvin Tinashe Choto, whom police shot in the head during protests in Chitungwiza on January 14.
In Mbare, a suburb of Harare, witnesses said that police and soldiers fatally shot in the neck Tony Nyapokoto, a 36-year-old driver, in front of his house on January 15. Patricia Kamuriwo, 36, said she was shot in the thighs as she crossed the road to look for her child when security forces fired on protesters on January 14, in Epworth, near Harare.
Security forces appeared to use the crackdown to commit numerous cases of rape. Eight women from Hopley, Southlea Park, and Epworth in Harare province told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews that they were raped by uniformed and armed soldiers and police, some concealing their identities with masks. A 46-year-old woman said that nine armed men, six in army uniform, came to her house in Epworth on January 15 at about 9 p.m. Two soldiers raped her without condoms in front of her teenage son. At the local police station, the police refused to record her complaint, telling her, “these things happen, these things are happening all over the country, so we cannot receive your report or open a police case docket.”
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) reported that police and army personnel carried out apparently indiscriminate door-to-door raids, forcibly entering homes by breaking doors and windows, in some Harare suburbs including Mabvuku, Dzivarasekwa, Warren Park, and Kuwadzana between January 14 and January 29. Human Rights Watch found that the security forces rounded up and detained hundreds of people, many of whom were brought before the courts on charges of public violence and criminal nuisance, most of whom remain in detention.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, security forces need to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people except to protect against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.
Some protesters burned cars at a police station in Chitungwiza, barricaded roads, burned tires on roads to stop police vehicles from patrolling, assaulted people on the streets, and looted shops in Harare, Kadoma, and Bulawayo, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. In a January 28 report, the commission found that law enforcement agents seemed to “resort to use of brute, excessive and disproportionate force in most circumstances thereby causing avoidable loss of life and also worsening the situation.”
On January 20, army and police officials jointly addressed the media and denied responsibility for abuses during the protests, blaming the violence on protesters who allegedly stole their uniforms and acted as “rogue cops and soldiers.” Two days later, Mnangagwa tweeted that “violence or misconduct by our security forces is unacceptable and a betrayal of the new Zimbabwe. Chaos and insubordination will not be tolerated. Misconduct will be investigated. If required, heads will roll.”
Leaders in southern Africa should impress upon Mnangagwa the need for prompt, impartial, and effective investigations into the violence, Human Rights Watch said. On February 11, the chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Namibian President Hage Geingob, blamed demonstrators for the violence. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will meet Mnangagwa in Harare on March 12, has not in recent public statements on Zimbabwe even mentioned the human rights situation in the country.
“Southern Africa leaders should press Mnangagwa to put an end to security force abuses and ensure those responsible are brought to justice,” Mavhinga said. “Instead of burying his head in the sand when it comes to human rights, President Ramaphosa should publicly urge his Zimbabwean counterpart to deliver on his promise to get to the bottom of these allegations and hold perpetrators to account.”
On January 13, Peter Mutasa, the president of Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and Pastor Evan Mawarire, the leader of the #ThisFlag Movement, called on Zimbabweans to stay away from work from January 14 to 16 to protest worsening economic conditions.
On January 14, many people stayed home and closed businesses in Harare, Bulawayo, and other major cities. Some protesters became violent, looting shops, barricading roads, and burning down property in Chitungwiza, Epworth, Mabvuku, Kuwadzana, and Bulawayo. Court proceedings and credible media reports alleged that members of the ruling Zimbabwe African Nationalist Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party were responsible for some of the protest violence. Charges of violence and arson were brought against several ZANU-PF leaders who were tried and convicted.
On January 15, the government instructed internet service providers, including Econet and TelOne, to shut down access to social media and internet. Access was only fully restored after the High Court ruled that the shutdown was unlawful.
Killings and Injuries by Security Forces
Human Rights Watch documented the cases of 14 men and 3 women killed by security forces between January 14 and February 5. Fourteen of those died from gunfire, while three died from injuries sustained following severe beatings. Most of those killed were from Epworth, Chitungwiza, and Harare’s Mbare and Warren Park suburbs.
A relative of Innocent Masengu of Warren Park, Harare, whom security forces allegedly beat to death, told Human Rights Watch:
A group of soldiers in uniform pounced on Innocent and beat him severely, for no apparent reason, and left him on the side of the road to die. Now they are falsely claiming that Innocent was mugged. We saw what happened, but they want to cover up the truth. Why this senseless brutality? Innocent did not wrong anyone. We live in fear, we cannot speak out, because they might come after us, but I know that Innocent would have wanted the world to know how he died and his blood cries for justice.”
On January 14 in Kadoma, security forces shot Tafadzwa Mike Muswini, 19, in the heart, killing him instantly, according to a relative. On January 15, a policeman fatally shot Solomon Nyaruwa, from Marondera, a small town 75 kilometers east of Harare, according to a family member. Medical records provided to Human Rights Watch show that Tanaka Bushu, 19, of Mbare died on January 30 of gunshot injuries. Family members reported that on January 14, Thandiwe Ncube, a 54-year-old woman from Epworth in Harare, was run over by an army truck in unclear circumstances and was killed.
Family members said that Kudawakwashe Rixon of Mbare died from injuries sustained following severe beatings by security forces who randomly attacked him while on his way from work in the aftermath of the protests. Medical records provided to Human Rights Watch show that Noah Nyahombe, 29, from Mutare, who told doctors that soldiers severely assaulted him with blunt objects in Mutare on January 22, sustained extensive soft tissue injuries and later suffered renal failure and died on February 1.
The driver of a public bus, Morris Mukunga, said that on January 20, after the protests had ended, several armed soldiers in a white Isuzu pursued and fired on his bus in Budiriro, Harare:
I had one passenger on board, and one conductor assisting me. I thought the soldiers would not shoot at a public transport vehicle with passengers on board, but the soldiers kept firing. They drove faster, came to the driver’s side, and shot at me through the door. Suddenly I felt like an electric shock to my right leg. I tried to control the vehicle to avoid crashing into houses. I eventually crashed into a tree, but the soldiers kept coming, shouting at me to come out of the bus, as they crashed the windscreen with their rifle butts. They then dragged me out, pointing their guns at me. I saw I was bleeding a lot, and just before I passed out, I saw the soldiers beating my conductor and the passenger. When I woke up, I was in Harare hospital. My right leg had been amputated below the knee.
He said that the hospital billed him US$1,100, but relatives obtained his discharge after paying $50. “I can no longer drive,” he said. “I am now unemployed and destitute, with a huge medical bill.”
Medical personnel said that on January 14, a group of uniformed soldiers and police in Chitungwiza stopped a man, who was a soldier in civilian clothes, near Makoni shopping center where he had bought some groceries. They accused him of having looted the groceries and then shot him in the right forearm.
A 42-year-old man from Epworth said that he was wounded in the right thigh when soldiers and police shot at a protesting mob on January 14. A 21-year-old man who was not a protester said that on January 14, he saw people running away from the police and army, and he heard gunshots. Before he could run away, he was shot in the right arm. According to medical personnel, the bullet went through the right upper side of his abdomen and ruptured his left kidney and caused a severe spinal cord injury, leaving him paraplegic.
Security forces appeared to take advantage of the general unrest during the protests and crackdown to commit rape and other serious abuses. Some committed rape without using condoms, increasing the risk of transmitting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
One survivor said before they took turns to rape her without using condoms, two soldiers said she should be raped as punishment to make her “tell the truth” about her husband’s possible involvement in opposition politics.
A 28-year-old woman from Harare said that on the night of January 17, a group of men called out her husband’s name and pounded on the door of their house as she and her husband were sleeping:
When [my husband] opened the door, I heard him exclaim in surprise. When I moved to check, I saw that two men had entered the house. It was dark because we didn’t have electricity. One of them said, “we are soldiers and the police.” They then demanded money from me, and I went to the wardrobe where [my husband] keeps the money. I took the US$1,500 that was there, and I gave it to them. I thought that would be the end of the matter, and they would leave, but they did not. One of them left with the money and the other remained. The one who remained then ordered me to take of my panties, but I was frozen in one spot and remained standing. He then took off my panties by force. I was standing close to the bed, so he forced me down onto the bed and then he raped me.
In the Hopley neighborhood of Harare at about 8 p.m. on January 15, two soldiers stopped a 22-year-old woman on her way to the shop, accused her of being a prostitute, and then forced her to perform oral sex on one of them.
On January 17, a group of soldiers broke into a woman’s house in Hopley. After her husband ran away, two soldiers took turns raping her without using condoms in front of her three children.
A sex worker in Harare said that at about 4 a.m. on January 17, two soldiers stopped her and her friend and raped them.
Beatings and Arbitrary Arrests and Detentions during the Protests
On the night of January 14, security forces indiscriminately arrested 51 residents of Epworth on false charges of public violence, as a court later determined. Zebediah Kamba, 65, said that a group of armed and uniformed soldiers wearing masks jumped over the perimeter wall to his house around midnight, dragged him out of bed, and arrested him. Kamba said that the soldiers forced him and other arrested men to roll in the mud on the streets. A magistrate released the detainees on February 15.
In Chitungwiza on the night of January 14, security forces arrested 30 boys aged 11 to 17, and 6 young men aged 18 to 23. In separate interviews, 12 boys said that armed soldiers dragged them out of their homes, beat them, and ordered them to roll in the mud on the streets, accusing them of having looted shops. For the next three days, security forces beat them three times a day – in the morning, afternoon, and evening after meals, forcing them to confess to looting shops. All 36 were later released without being charged.
Several people from the Ruwa neighborhood of Harare said that on January 15, a group of soldiers and police went on a rampage, using batons and open hands to indiscriminately beat up people who were not protesting.
Since the January protests, the authorities have arrested on baseless charges several leaders of civil society groups. Pastor Evan Mawarire of the #ThisFlag Movement was arrested on January 16 and charged with subverting a constitutional government. On January 21, the police arrested Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), on charges of inciting public violence and subversion of a constitutional government in connection with the January protests. On January 25, the police arrested Peter Mutasa, president of the ZCTU, on charges of treason. Mawarire, Moyo, and Mutasa have been awaiting trial while out on bail.
On January 18 at about 9:30 p.m., armed men believed to be police abducted Obert Masaraure, national president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ). He said that several men broke into his house and started to beat him using their gun butts and sjamboks, heavy leather whips, demanding to know the people funding his labor union. They dragged him outside, put him into the trunk of a vehicle, and later handed him over to Harare Central Police Station, where he was charged with subversion and inciting public violence.
On January 29, lawyers led by ZLHR board member Beatrice Mtetwa marched in Harare to protest the judiciary’s handling of the hundreds of cases of people arbitrarily arrested during and following the protests. Zimbabwe’s Chief Justice Luke Malaba responded to the lawyers’ petition with a statement on January 30 that acknowledged that between January 14 and 29, 1,055 people had been arrested; of those, 995 had been denied bail, 80 were convicted, and 66 acquitted. He expressed concerned over the large number of people who remained in custody and committed to facilitate fair and speedy trials.
Mnangagwa, at a rally in Mwenezi on February 16, threatened lawyers and doctors who had assisted injured and arrested people since the protests. This included human rights lawyers who had provided legal representation to those detained and doctors from ZADHR who had provided emergency medical treatment to those injured during the protests.