Zimbabwe: More than 60 activists held, 40 beaten, claims NGO

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

JOHANNESBURG, 29 November (IRIN) - More than 60 protesting Zimbabweans, some carrying babies, were arrested and at least another 40 were allegedly assaulted by the police in the country's second city, Bulawayo, on Wednesday.

"The level of police brutality was shocking," said Annie Sibanda, of the activist organisation Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), which had organised a peaceful march to mark the launch of a 'People's Charter', a declaration on political and economic rights, and the '16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence', an international campaign running until International Human Rights Day on 10 December.

Sibande said the demonstrators had congregated near the government offices in the city centre, where they began reading out the People's Charter compiled by WOZA, which calls on the state to provide affordable housing, education and healthcare, when about 30 riot police arrived and started arresting them.

She claimed that 63 men and women were taken to the Bulawayo central police station, and another 40 demonstrators were rounded up and taken to a neighbouring police drill room and allegedly beaten. Police then took six demonstrators, including a woman who allegedly had her leg broken in the drill room, to a public hospital for medical attention.

The police spokesman in Bulawayo said they were unable to confirm the arrests and asked IRIN to telephone again on Thursday.

Since its formation in 2003, WOZA has taken to the streets regularly to highlight the economic crisis, triggered in 2000 by Zimbabwe's fast-track land reform programme. Unemployment levels have risen above 70 percent, annual inflation is around 1,000 percent, and there are chronic shortages of foreign currency, fuel and basic commodities. The government blames sanctions imposed by the West for its economic problems.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) announced on Wednesday that it intends to sue the government for about US$5.3 million for the alleged assault and torture of several of its members arrested during a demonstration in September.

"We have issued a notice about our intention to sue. The state has three months to respond," said ZCTU spokesman Mlamleli Sibanda. Fifteen ZCTU members, including top officials, are each claiming between $239,000 and $319,000. "They [the members] sustained varying degrees of injuries, and some are still in plasters three months after the beatings."

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) issued a medical report confirming that the 15 were assaulted while in police custody. Police have reportedly claimed the unionists sustained the injuries when they tried to jump from a moving vehicle after they had been arrested.

"These were injuries consistent with beatings with blunt objects, heavy enough to cause fractures [9 fractures in 7 individuals] to hands and arms, and severe and multiple soft-tissue injuries to the backs of the heads, shoulders, arms, and buttocks and thighs," the ZADHR said in a statement.

A recent Human Rights Watch report said the violent repression of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe had intensified in the past three years and cited the alleged assault of the unionists as an example.

Reginald Machaba Hove, chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and also a medical doctor who initially examined the unionists, told Human Rights Watch: "I was really shocked and taken back by what I saw. To me the injuries showed that they [the unionists] were trying to protect themselves; they were trying to protect their heads, using their raised arms."

IRIN was unable to get comment from the government. Zimbabwe's Minister for State Security, Didymus Mutasa, told IRIN earlier this month that the unionists had provoked the police into taking action. "One of the trade unionists had attacked a policeman at a roadblock. So then the police told the trade unionists, 'Now you are in our hands, we are beating you'. How can people attack the police and not expect them to retaliate?"