Outrage over NGO crackdown

HARARE - Rights groups have expressed outrage over the detention of a director of pro-democracy groups Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and ZimRights, charged with tampering with the voters’ roll.

Okay Machisa’s remand in custody up to January 30 has crystallised anger and raised the stakes for international human rights organisations.

The presiding magistrate denied him bail on the basis that the case is a matter of national interest since the alleged offence is meant to discredit national institutions, specifically the Registrar General’s office.

The magistrate said investigations are complex hence the State needs more time to carry out a thorough investigation throughout all the ZimRights branches across the country and that the co-accused Leo Chamawhinya is remanded in custody hence no basis to remand Machisa out of custody.

The magistrate claimed the public will lose confidence in the justice system if Machisa is granted bail since it is a high profile case of national interest. Some see it as a bad omen for Zimbabwe’s fledgling democracy as the country hurtles towards a bitter election.

International human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI), voiced “alarm and outrage” at a “new and disturbing turn”.

“This case appears to have the hallmarks of politically-motivated prosecutions calculated to instil fear among human rights defenders as the country prepares for elections sometime in the year,” Noel Kututwa, AI’s deputy programme director for Africa.

“Many other human rights workers and NGO staff have been harassed, intimidated and arbitrarily detained by police as part of the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in the country ahead of the elections.

“The authorities must act to halt such rights abuses and release all those detained as part of this crackdown. These cases cast doubt on whether the country is ready to hold a violence free election.”

US pro-democracy group Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) blasted the detention of Machisa and his co-accused.

“The increasingly brazen steps that Zimbabwean authorities have taken to block civic activism are an unsettling reminder of the violence and intimidation that has marred past elections,” said Santiago A. Canton, director of partners for human rights at the RFK Centre.

“In December, President Mugabe resolved to de-register so-called ‘errant’ civic groups that ‘deviate from their mandate’ during his annual political party conference in December.

The international community, and in particular, leaders from the Southern African Development Community, must urge the government of Zimbabwe to immediately end all forms of harassment and intimidation against civil society organisations and human rights activists.”

The RFK Centre said with elections once again on the horizon, it is of paramount importance for the Zimbabwean government to cultivate an environment that is conducive to peace, social cohesion, and free and fair polls.

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition regional coordinator Phillan Zamchiya said the detention of Machisa shows that the State has no respect for the presumption of innocence principle.

“We condemn this calculated assault on activists meant to cow civil society organisations that are fighting for democratic reforms before the next watershed election,” Zamchiya said.
 
“We reiterate our position that the political environment in Zimbabwe is not yet conducive for a free and fair election.

“We appeal for solidarity action, regional and international pressure on the Zimbabwe State to respect the rule of law.

“Such action is important to mitigate against a possible surge in the harassment and detention of activists especially as we head towards the general election.” - Gift Phiri, Political Editor

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