Armed anti-riot police in Zimbabwe forcibly dispersed hundreds of protesters today, using teargas, batons, and whips, tarnishing the image President Emmerson Mnangagwa has tried to paint of a new rights-respecting government post-Mugabe.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa looks on after delivering the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 20, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
The opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) called for the protests, which the police banned last night. The MDC requested that a High Court set aside the ban and allow the protest to move forward. Instead, at around 9:30 a.m. today, the High Court declined to set aside the ban. But as the protest was set to start in Harare at 10:00 a.m., protesters had already gathered by the time the MDC called the demonstration off.

International human rights standards don’t bar police from breaking up an unlawful demonstration, but they do require police to avoid or at least minimize the use of force when those demonstrations are peaceful.

I spoke to several people in Harare who said they witnessed police using whips and batons to beat up older persons and women, including a woman with a child on her back. A member of the Zimbabwe Doctors Association for Human Rights (ZADHR) told me over the phone that she had treated several women for soft tissue injuries sustained from beatings by the police. Today’s brutality is at odds with Mnangagwa’s repeated promises to usher in a ‘new dispensation’ that embraces democracy and human rights, and that gross rights abuses would become a thing of Zimbabwe's past.

If the Mnangagwa government is serious about respecting the rule of law, then it should take steps to ensure that what happened today is not repeated. To show that Zimbabwe has made a clean break with its abusive past, authorities should investigate today’s violence and hold accountable those responsible for any abuses.