Zim steps up rights activists' arrests

HARARE - President Robert Mugabe’s government has escalated its clampdown on human rights defenders, with police arresting more of the activists in 2016, compared to the previous year, a latest Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) report has revealed.

In its recently released 2016 annual study, the rights lawyers said they represented over a thousand people classified as human rights defenders (HRDs) — more than double the 459 it offered legal assistance in 2015.

The human rights advocacy organisation voiced concern at what they described as an apparent rise in the frequency and gravity of abuses.

“Representation of human rights defenders multiplied to unprecedented levels between July and September 2016, with lawyers successfully representing hundreds of individuals who were arrested around the country on suspicion of having participated in escalating nationwide protests,” ZLHR chairperson Beatrice Mtetwa said in the report.

Last year, the country was rocked by unprecedented anti-Mugabe protests, as the 93-year-old leader’s opponents were emboldened by rising public anger over economic hardships, including severe cash shortages, high unemployment, delays in payment of public workers and deepening grinding poverty.

“As individuals and communities became more vocal in calling for political and economic reforms, State actors largely maintained and entrenched their control, leading to an increase in repression and violations and thus a greater demand for our legal services,” the report said.

Dozens of journalists, bloggers and activists have been arrested in the past few months, and lawyers defending such figures have also been targeted.

But ZLHR’s team of lawyers continued to intervene, offering legal support to many beneficiaries from different social and political backgrounds, who often exhibited great courage in defending the Constitution and asserting and demanding respect for their rights and fundamental freedoms.    

The government has failed to investigate widespread, systemic and systematic violations of human rights.

“Together with constrained human resources, this inevitably led to longer working hours and a tightening of purse strings; however, this did not deter our team, which remained enthusiastic, committed and able to support individuals and communities who became increasingly active against bad governance practices and louder in calling for sweeping reforms that would contribute to the democratisation of the country.”

Out of 1 663 people assisted by ZLHR, 1 031 — 63 percent of the beneficiaries —  benefited from emergency and follow-up service under protection of HRDs while 632 benefited from public interest litigation, according to the annual report.

At least 860 males and 171 females were represented by lawyers following their arrest, detention and or prosecution under the protection of HRDs priority area while rural communities increasingly benefited from public interest litigation efforts.

Torture by blunt instruments, including truncheons, and rapes and electric shocks have been reported in Zimbabwe.

Out of the 487 cases, 206 were HRDs and 281 were public interest litigation.

“Most HRDs cases were in Harare province with a total of 122 cases benefiting 621 people representing 60 percent, the majority of whom were targeted following protests.”

During the previous year, 2015, the organisation had taken up 121 cases benefitting a total of 459 HRDs.

At least 46 civil society representatives targeted during the course of their work were provided with legal support, with 76 percent of HRDs that were assisted charged with violating the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

The rights lawyers said 18 percent of the HRDs were released without charge.  Other laws applied against the minority of HRDs included the Consequential (Gazetted Lands) Act, and the Protected Places Act, the ZLHR reported.

The organisation also paid tribute to its outgoing executive director, Irene Petras.

“We cannot quantify her contribution to the organisation that spans over a dozen years. She exhibited great courage, dedication and commitment to the cause of human rights. Her legacy will be remembered for generations to come.”

 

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