Zimbabwe government abuses critics, allege rights groups

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Godfrey Kurauone, a Zimbabwean opposition official, sang a protest song at the funeral of a party member in July. For that, and other political charges, he spent 42 days in jail before the prosecution dropped one charge, and acquitted him of another charge of blocking traffic.

Hopewell Chin’ono, an investigative journalist who used his Twitter account to expose alleged government corruption, was held in the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison for nearly six weeks before being granted bail on charges of inciting violence for tweeting his support for an anti-government protest.

Internationally acclaimed author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga spent a night in detention for standing by a Harare road and holding up a placard that said “We Want Better. Reform Our Institutions”.

All face court cases for publicly challenging Zimbabwe’s government.

From tweeting to WhatsApp texting, singing in public or marching in the streets, those who speak out against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government are finding themselves in trouble. Some have been abducted and tortured, according to human rights groups.

Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economy and reports of alleged corruption involving the procurement of COVID-19 protective equipment and drugs have stoked people’s anger at a government that promised reform and prosperity when it took power in 2017.

Student and human rights activists hold banners during a peaceful protest in Harare. PHOTO: AP

It appears the government is using restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus to suppress political criticism, said 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 organisation, said 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 targetted individuals, and exposing them to the risk of contracting the virus while arbitrarily detained in prisons,” said Zimrights in a joint statement with the International Federation for Human Rights.