Bashing dissent: escalating violence and state repression in Zimbabwe



Of course he [opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai] was bashed. He deserved it...I told the police beat him a lot. He and his MDC must stop their terrorist activities. We are saying to him, 'Stop it now or you will regret it.' -President Robert Mugabe, addressing a ZANU PF (ruling party) rally on March 29, 2007.

On March 11, 2007, the Save Zimbabwe Campaign-a broad coalition of civil society organizations and members of the political opposition-attempted to hold a prayer meeting at Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield, Harare. As hundreds of people streamed into the grounds, police used violence and brutality to prevent the meeting from taking place, and arrested more than 50 opposition members and civil society activists, including the leaders of the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The arrest and severe beating of these opposition leaders and civil society activists by police and state security officers marked a new low in Zimbabwe's seven-year political crisis. It ignited a new government campaign of violence and repression against members of the opposition and civil society-and increasingly ordinary Zimbabweans-in the capital Harare and elsewhere throughout the country. The ominous statements by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe on March 17 and 29, 2007 that the opposition members and civil society activists deserved to be "bashed" by the police highlighted the government's blatant disregard for the basic human rights of its citizens that authorities at all levels have shown during Zimbabwe's political crisis.

This report, based on two weeks of research in the cities of Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo, Mutare and Bindura, describes in detail the Zimbabwe government's most recent violent crackdown on peaceful protest and dissent from February to April 2007, mainly in the city of Harare. It provides evidence of the government's widespread and systematic abuses against members and supporters of the opposition and civil society activists, as well as its increasingly violent repression of ordinary Zimbabweans in the high-density suburbs of Harare. The report highlights how the Zimbabwe authorities have repeatedly breached and violated the human rights of its citizens with complete impunity.

Human Rights Watch conducted 37 interviews with lawyers, NGO representatives, and victims and witnesses to the violence in the city of Harare and its suburbs of Glenview and Highfield, as well as 14 interviews with civil society activists in Bindura, Mutare, Masvingo and Bulawayo. All described acts of intimidation, arbitrary arrests, abductions and beatings by Zimbabwe's police forces and other state and security agents. This report also documents how police have used disproportionate and lethal force against unarmed activists resulting in the death of one activist, Gift Tandare, and serious injuries to several others.

The Zimbabwean government claims that it is responding to an opposition campaign of violence and terror in the country and has arrested more than 30 MDC members and supporters throughout Zimbabwe whom it accuses of orchestrating and carrying out a series of petrol bomb attacks around the country. Human Rights Watch opposes the use of violence by all political parties, and those who commit such acts should be prosecuted in accordance with international fair trial standards. Although the petrol bomb attacks and violence may provide the official justification for the government's arrests of opposition officials, they do not justify the state's brutal and widespread campaign of beatings and repression of hundreds of ordinary Zimbabweans, opposition members and supporters, and civil society activists in Harare's suburbs.

In contrast to government claims that primary responsibility for the recent violence lies with the political opposition, Human Rights Watch found that Zimbabwe's police forces, agents of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), and groups of "youth militia" are the main perpetrators of serious human rights abuses. The government's failure to curb abuses by these groups is likely to encourage further unchecked violence.

Despite widespread international condemnation and calls for an end to the abuses- including the beatings, arbitrary arrests and abductions of opposition members and supporters, civil society activists and the repression of ordinary Zimbabweans-continue unabated. The human rights violations that have occurred in Zimbabwe over the past three months-and the complete lack of accountability of those responsible for these violations-is of special concern given the longstanding and pervasive culture of impunity in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean government has legal obligations under several international and African human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR). Among the rights Zimbabwe must uphold are the right to life and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Human Rights Watch calls on the government to ensure that its security forces respect these obligations, and to appropriately discipline or prosecute, regardless of rank, those responsible for abuses.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the Zimbabwean security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations. The principles call upon law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

On March 28, 2007, heads of state of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) convened a summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to address the political crisis in Zimbabwe. The summit mandated South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate talks between the opposition and the ruling party. In the face of the ongoing violence, Human Rights Watch urges the SADC member states to take a much stronger stance in response to the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe. The SADC should demonstrate a renewed commitment to protect human rights in the region through deploying an independent investigative mission to assess the human rights situation in Zimbabwe.


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