HARARE - Arrested persons in Zimbabwe face violence in grubby police cells on a disturbing scale, with rights groups pushing for reforms, moving to address shortfalls in laws and seeking to end impunity that continue sto foster a culture of brutal repression by law enforcement.
The authorities have announced some token initiatives in the new Zimbabwe Constitution, adopted in 2013, including the introduction of a police complaints mechanism.
However, critics say President Robert Mugabe’s public commitment to tackle the issue has not yet translated into a cohesive and sustained strategy.
The authorities are still refusing to acknowledge the scale of the problem and dodging key reforms needed to effectively start tackling violence in police custody and appalling conditions in police cells.
Rights groups said while treatment inside police stations and formal detention facilities appears to have significantly improved since the 2008 elections that saw the killing of over 200 mainly opposition supporters, police are being accused of still regularly resorting to beating protesters, in some cases severely, at the time of arrest and during their transfer to police stations.
National police spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Charity Charamba flatly denied the rights groups’ allegations.
“No one has written to us or to the commissioner-general raising such complaints and giving specific cases or statistics to say we are having so many cases of police brutality,” she told the Daily News on Sunday yesterday.
“Under the circumstances, it will be difficult for us to comment on issues we do not know, they should let us know first.”
Rights lawyer Rashid Mahiya has dragged the minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Emmerson Mnangagwa to court seeking an order compelling the government do something to implement section 210 of the new Constitution, which requires the passing of an Act of Parliament to provide an effective independent complaints mechanism to receive, investigate and deal with complaints from members of the public about misconduct on the part of members of the police and other security services.
The Public Interest Litigation unit of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) is also moving to hold abusive police officers to account for their actions in their personal capacity.
In a landmark anti-impunity ruling, a Mutare magistrate last week issued a garnish order to have $100 docked off monthly from the salary of a police officer for the next 10 months to pay damages to a suspect he assaulted at Zimunya Police Station.
This is part of an anti-impunity drive being actioned by Peggy Tavagadza, a projects lawyer at ZLHR.
Magistrate Anniah Ndiraya decreed that the Salaries Services Bureau deduct a total of $1 007 from constable Tafara Depute’s salary to pay Samson Jackson.
Curiously, the Civil Division of the Attorney General’s office, which was representing the cop, did not oppose the ruling.
The court remarked that the number of police officers assaulting arrested citizens has been rising dramatically and the courts must show displeasure at such misconduct.
The court opined that police officers must protect the citizens and not abuse them. Rights groups have previously documented frequent use of torture by authorities, usually in the context of interrogations and for the apparent purpose of securing confessions.
Harare provincial magistrate Vakayi Douglas Chikwekwe told the Daily News on Sunday that courts routinely receive complaints against police, adding “not all of them were thoroughly investigated”.
“Our courts take those issues very seriously but the predicament faced by the State is that of ‘biting its own fingers’ because the police officers that would have been complained against are also part of State,” he said.
“Cases of torture in police holding cells used to flood our courts but they are becoming lesser because, now, the Constitution does not allow suspects to be detained for more than 48 hours and police are now afraid of being arrested and sued.
“…that is the reason why you now see that our courts actually encourage that such victims be examined by independent doctors.”
In a statement made recently by the Law Society of Zimbabwe before a parliamentary committee on human rights, the lawyers described the police holding cells as inhabitable after a number of suspects had been reported dead.
“There have been disturbing reports of deaths in police custody and some of our members have reported that some of their clients have been assaulted or coerced to make confessions,” read the statement.
“These are people who have been arrested and have not yet been convicted but they are kept in filthy and ill-equipped cells.”
The risk of torture of arrested persons is increased by the fact that they are often detained incommunicado in police stations, without access to family members, lawyers, or human rights or medical workers, rights groups say. This is compounded by little or no independent scrutiny of conditions of detention.
The Supreme Court in June 2014 reserved judgment in a landmark case in which four Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) leaders were seeking a declaratory order condemning detention cells at Harare Central Police Station as inhuman, degrading and uninhabitable.
A five-judge panel of the Supreme Court made up of Justice Vernanda Ziyambi, Justice Rita Makarau, Justice Paddington Garwe, Justice Yunus Omerjee and Justice Anne-Mary Gowora nearly fell on the slippery floors of Harare Central Police Station as a result of tailored polishing of the floors to give a facade of improved cell conditions during an inspection of the police lockups which they conducted to ascertain the state of their conditions.
Woza, whose members are regularly detained in grubby police cells for staging anti-government protests, wanted the detention cells at Harare Central Police Station to be cleaned and resourced with toilet paper and washing bowls and not the current case where the conditions are unhygienic.
The Woza leaders also wanted the police to provide a clean mattress and adequate blankets, as well as adequate bathing or shower installations for each person detained in police custody overnight, to have access to sufficient drinking water suitable for consumption and for detainees to enjoy daily exposure to natural light and appropriate ventilation and heating.
Earlier in 2005, the Supreme Court condemned police cells at Matapi and Highlands police stations as degrading and inhuman and unfit for holding suspects following an application filed by ZLHR on behalf of former Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Wellington Chibebe and Nancy Kachingwe after they had been detained at the two filthy holding cells.
Yet the appalling cells remain in operation to this day — still holding suspects.
According to ZLHR, detainees should enjoy equal rights just like every other human being for as long as they are presumed innocent.
“Rights specific to pre-trial detainees include the right to liberty and the right to the protection of the law, which includes the right to a fair trial within a reasonable period and the right to innocence until proven guilty as well as freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Rights groups, donor agencies and international human rights groups are urging government to take measures to protect suspects in detention, and specifically to support the urgent need for independent monitoring of police stations as a means to prevent torture.
The positive impact of outside monitoring is illustrated by Zimbabwean prisons, which are generally open to visits by human rights, medical or other organisations.
Regular outside scrutiny of prison conditions has coincided with a steady decrease in reports of torture committed by prison staff against incarcerated people in recent years.
Rights groups warned that the failure of authorities to investigate and punish those responsible had led to a “climate of impunity” in the country.