By Louw Nel – Political Analyst
On Tuesday, May 26, authorities in Zimbabwe charged three activists from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance (MDC-A) with breaching the country’s lockdown regulations, nearly two weeks after they were allegedly abducted and brutalised after being taken into police custody.
The female activists, including Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe, were arrested at a roadblock in Harare on May 13 as they were returning from a protest in the Warren Park area.
They say that they were then taken to a remote area where state agents beat and sexually assaulted them before leaving them on the side of the road near Bindura, some 90km north of the capital, two days later.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) has confirmed that the activists were taken into custody but denies any knowledge of the alleged abduction.
All three remain hospitalised.
Minister of Justice Ziyambi Ziyambi has accused the activists of inventing the story to deflect from their violation of lockdown regulations.
Prosecutors say that the activists were attending a protest gathering of more than 50 people – in contravention of lockdown regulations – and have accused them of trying to “promote public violence or breaches of peace”.
Two journalists who tried to visit the women in hospital were also arrested and charged with breaking lockdown regulations – among them the MDC-A’s youth leader in Harare, Stanley Manyenga.
The decision to charge the women with breaching lockdown regulations has been condemned, with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and Amnesty International both describing the decision as an effort to intimidate the women, calling instead for an investigation into their abduction.
The accused’s onerous bail conditions have also been questioned, including the requirement that they report to their local police station three times daily.
Diplomatic envoys in Zimbabwe, including the heads of mission from the EU, Norway, Switzerland, UK, and US, co-signed a statement saying they expect “a swift, thorough and credible investigation into the abduction and torture of opposition Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe, along with Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova… [and that] the perpetrators of heinous acts of this kind and other human rights violations need to be identified and prosecuted”.
Opposition forces in Zimbabwe have questioned the government’s response to Covid-19, suggesting that the widespread deployment of police and military personnel and strict lockdown measures have been used to crack down on and stifle dissent.
The 21-day countrywide lockdown, introduced on March 30, was extended indefinitely on May 16. Heavy-handed enforcement of lockdown restrictions has been widely reported, with the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum saying on May 22 that 245 violations had been recorded since the start of lockdown.
The coalition of 20 rights groups has petitioned the minister of home affairs and the police commissioner to investigate what they describe as “escalating human rights violations”.
The abduction of the MDC-A activists has raised alarm in a country where the targeted harassment – or worse – of opposition forces was commonplace during the regime of former President Robert Mugabe.
The trend seems to be continuing under his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with state agents still being accused of extrajudicial actions, presumably with the knowledge of their superiors.
The decision to charge the activists suggests that authorities are intent on continuing their harassment of opposition forces.
More protests against food shortages, such as the event attended by the activists, are likely in the coming weeks and we expect these to be met with a heavy-handed security force response.