From tweeting to texting, singing in public or marching in the streets, those who speak out against Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government are finding themselves in trouble.
According to human rights groups, some have been abducted and tortured by agents of the state and security forces.
Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economy and reports of alleged corruption involving the procurement of COVID-19 protective equipment and drugs have stoked peoples’ anger at a government that promised reform and prosperity when it took power in 2017.
It appears the government is using restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus to suppress political criticism, say human rights defenders.
“While the government lockdown has been extended indefinitely, human rights violations have steadily increased, suggesting that the government is using COVID-19 as a cover for violating fundamental freedoms and attacking perceived opponents,” said the local human rights group ZimRights in a joint statement with the International Federation for Human Rights.
Opposition officials, human rights groups and some analysts accuse Mnangagwa of abusing the rights of critics, using tactics as harsh as his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe.
Mnangagwa and his officials deny the charges, saying they have carried out democratic reforms and they are justified in taking measures against people who are seeking to illegally overthrow the government.
Dozens of people — including lawyers, journalists, nurses, doctors, opposition members of parliament, and human rights activists — have been arrested and charged with violating COVID-19 lockdown rules, or for protesting on the streets and on social media.
ZimRights, a local organization, says it has recorded 820 “human rights violations” such as arbitrary arrests, assaults by state agents, attacks on journalists, abductions, “gunshot assaults” and dog bites between the end of March when the lockdown was introduced and August 9.
“These cases reveal a trend of human rights violations consisting of acts aiming to morally exhaust, silence, punish, impoverish, sometimes physically injure the targeted individuals, and exposing them to the risk of contracting the virus while arbitrarily detained in prisons,” said ZimRights.
It’s not even safe to criticize the president in bars, on public transport or on social media, according to the lawyers’ group, which said it has represented about 60 people charged with insulting the president since Mnangagwa took over following a coup that deposed Mugabe in 2017.
They include Milton Murairwa, a 31-year old police officer. He posted that “ED and his team must go,” on a Whatsapp group for police family members. Mnangagwa is popularly known by his initials ED. Now the police officer faces up to a year in jail or a fine if convicted on charges of “undermining the authority of or insulting” the president.
“We are seeing an increasingly worrying trend where authorities are abusing the law to persecute people perceived to hold views different to those of the establishment,” said Kumbirai Mafunda, spokesman for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
Authorities, he said, “are using pre-trial detention as a form of punishment,” pointing to cases where those arrested are denied bail for lengthy periods.
Hopes that neighbouring South Africa, the region’s economic powerhouse, would help to find a resolution are vanishing after a delegation from the ruling African National Congress party came to Zimbabwe but only met ruling party officials and not the opposition and or civic organizations.
Zimbabwe’s government and the ruling party are not relenting.
Mnangagwa told party officials over the weekend that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe needing intervention and that the South Africans would not meet the opposition and NGOs. (Source: Mainichi Japan)