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Zimbabwe: SADC Should Respond to Intensified Crackdown on Opponents

Respect Freedoms of Assembly and Association, End Repression of Critics

Opposition supporters protest outside a court, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Thursday, June 27, 2024. The protesters were angered by a magistrate's decision to deny bail to close to 80 activists arrested mid-June for allegedly meeting without official clearance. © AP Photo/Aaron Ufumeli

(Johannesburg) – The Southern African Development Community (SADC) should speak out against the Zimbabwean authorities’ intensified crackdown on the opposition and civil society organizations ahead of its summit in Harare, Human Rights Watch said today. The heads of state of SADC’s 16 members will meet on August 17, 2024, in Harare, Zimbabwe, for their 44th summit, where Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa will be taking over as chair of the subregional organization.

Since assuming power in a military coup in 2017, the administration of President Mnangagwa has committed serious human rights violations and shown a failure or unwillingness to institute lasting human rights reforms. Violence, intimidation, harassment, and repression aimed principally at opposition members and civil society activists have restricted civic and political space. Several activists have been abducted and tortured in the past year. The authorities have weaponized the criminal justice system against the ruling party’s political opponents. Opposition politicians have been held in prolonged pretrial detention or convicted on baseless, seemingly politically motivated charges.

“The government of President Mnangagwa is accelerating its crackdown against legitimate and peaceful activism ahead of the August summit,” said Allan Ngari, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Southern African Development Community needs to engage with the authorities to take clear measures to ensure the enjoyment of basic freedoms by all Zimbabweans.”

On June 16, the Zimbabwe Republic Police raided a private home in a suburb of Harare, the capital, and arrested over 70 people, most of them young, in what can be considered an attack on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Those detained were charged with participating in a gathering with the intent to promote violence, breaches of peace or bigotry as well as disorderly conduct. Their lawyers told the media that the gathering was a barbecue at the home of Jameson Timba, an opposition leader, to commemorate June 16, Day of the African Child.

On June 27, while denying them bail, a Harare magistrate ruled that the detainees were likely to commit similar offenses if released. The media has quoted their lawyers stating that the detainees had been assaulted and tortured during their arrest and while in custody.

The media has also reported that police assaulted and injured people who were at court in solidarity with the detained activists.

Also on June 27, at a meeting of his ZANU PF party, President Mnangagwa said he was “aware of certain rogue elements within the nation who are bent on peddling falsehoods and instigating acts of civil disorder, especially before, during, and after regional and world stage events.” He said security agencies were on high alert to decisively deal with the so-called rogue elements.

On June 28, a statement by Zimbabwe’s information, publicity and broadcasting minister claimed that “criminal and opportunistic elements within the opposition, certain politicians, and some civil society organizations” were “attempting to incite disorder and discontent.”

However, the minister said nothing about the constitutional rights of Zimbabweans to peacefully protest or the government’s domestic and international human rights obligations to respect peaceful activism. Several human rights organizations condemned the minister’s statement as “deeply concerning and undemocratic”.

On June 29, police raided a private home in Harare and arrested five people for holding an “unsanctioned gathering” and “agitating for criminal acts in the country.” A spokesperson of the five, who are members of a movement called National Democratic Working Group, said they were meeting to organize food disbursements to needy people in their area. On June 30, authorities disrupted a memorial event for an opposition supporter killed in 2022 and arrested several participants.

The Zimbabwe constitution and international law such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide for the pretrial rights of detainees and guarantee freedom of assembly and association, as well as freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment.

SADC should use the August summit and President Mnangagwa’s chairmanship as an opportunity to encourage Zimbabwe to put in place key reforms to improve respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, in line with the SADC Treaty, which requires members to act according to these principles.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have reported numerous instances of the inability of the Zimbabwean judicial system to effectively provide remedies for alleged human rights violations. SADC member states should consider engaging the African human rights systems, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to provide clarity on Zimbabwe’s obligations to protect all human rights under conditions laid down by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

“SADC should promote respect for human rights by calling upon Zimbabwe’s government to end repression and the arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of activists and opposition supporters,” Ngari said. “The pervasive climate of intimidation and repression needs to end.” 

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