Zimbabwe: End arrests, free detainees

1 March 2011. Johannesburg. The Zimbabwean government should immediately free 45 trade unionists, students, lawyers and workers arrested during the recent country-wide clampdown against a perceived plot to stage mass demonstrations against President Robert Mugabe, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation said today.

The group was arrested at the Labour Law Centre in Harare on 19 February and taken to the Harare central Prison where they remain.

Based on reports, the accused were allegedly watching video footage of the protests that led to the ousting of former presidents Zine Al - Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt when the arrests took place. The police seized DVDs with footage of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, a laptop computer and a banner with "incriminating evidence" at the time of the arrest.

Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, like his former Egyptian counterpart has ruled the country since 1981 and has used violence in the past to silence dissenters and opposition figures.

"It is absolutely ridiculous that watching televised coverage of pro-democracy protests should invite accusations of treason. These actions are symptomatic of a regime that has become accustomed to acting with impunity." said Mandeep Tiwana, Policy Manager at CIVICUS.

A second group of seven civil society activists were arrested and beaten on Monday according to Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise.

These two sets of arrests follow a statement by a group of prominent civil society organisations in Zimbabwe voicing serious concerns about increased acts of violence in the country, including intimidation, torture and abduction of citizens by the government in the run-up to elections.

On 13 February, the group of 38 Civil Society Organisations issued a joint statement condemning the violence unleashed by the ruling ZANU PF party cadres including "beatings," and "displacement" of certain communities. They also lamented the "detention of CSO leaders and raiding of their offices, the abductions of civil society activists, burning of newspapers, the looting of foreign African owned shops and the invasion of private property."

The recent arrests and detentions confirm the groups concerns of a growing trend where the government employs varying tactics to silence and intimidate citizens.

According to reports, leaders from both groups of activists have been brutalised and tortured while in police custody and have had no access to medical services. One woman was arrested with her baby who had to spend the night with her in detention and was only released to the father the following day.

After four nights in detention, the 45 accused appeared in court on 23 February and were charged with treason and subversion. If found guilty of treason, the accused could face the death penalty.

"State prosecutors once again exposed the serious deficiencies in the country's legal system as they only informed the defence lawyers about the nature of the charges when the accused were about to appear in court," said David Kode, Policy Officer with CIVICUS. "The Zimbabwean authorities have once again demonstrated their disregard for the rights and freedoms of citizens and their complete contempt for the rule of law."

The accused appeared again in court on 24 February and were later remanded in custody. Initial hearings scheduled for 28 February and 1 March were postponed. The accused have been informed they will be summoned again on 2 March.

The hearing comes as thousands of civil society activists in South Africa prepare to march outside the Zimbabwean embassy in Johannesburg in protest against Mugabe's repressive regime.

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries.

For more information please contact CIVICUS:

Rowena McNaughton ( rowena.mcnaughton@civicus.org, +27 11 833 5959), Media Officer, or

David Kode (david.kode@civicus.org, +27 73 775 8649), Policy Officer

Office tel: +27 11 833 5959