Zimbabwe: FIDH and ZimRights Deplore Persecution of Dissenters
25 September 2020
Paris, Harare. 11 September 2020 — The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organisation in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), welcome yesterday’s acquittal of human rights defender Godfrey Kurauone, who was detained arbitrarily in Zimbabwe for over a month, while denouncing the judicial harassment suffered by civil society members speaking out against the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our organisations deplore authorities’ harassment—including arbitrary detention—of members of civil society in Zimbabwe who denounce excesses of power in the country’s management of the health crisis.
The case of Mr. Godfrey Kurauone, human rights activist and elected opposition councillor for Ward 4 in Masvingo (in south-eastern Zimbabwe), who led various community initiatives aimed at increasing citizen participation in governance, is emblematic of this worrying trend. Yesterday, the Masvingo Magistrate’s Court acquitted him of “obstructing free movement of traffic” — a charge brought against him prior to the 31 July protest. Before his release yesterday, Mr. Kurauone had been detained since 31 July at Masvingo Remand Prison, where he did not receive adequate medical care, despite his deteriorating health while in custody.
According to reliable sources in touch with our organisations, on 31 July 2020, Mr. Godfrey Kurauone was arrested while at the Masvingo Law and Order police section with an additional charge of “criminal nuisance” (as defined in section 46 (2) (v) of the Criminal Law Act) for singing a protest song. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Kurauone was reporting to the police station as part of his bail conditions following a previous arrest on 15 June for “breaking lockdown rules” while he was distributing food to homeless people in Masvingo. On 3 August, Mr. Kurauone was brought before the Masvingo Magistrate’s court, where he was denied bail. On 12 August, he appeared before the Masvingo High Court for a bail hearing which was postponed to the next day; the judge ruled against his bail. The trial date was set for 25 August, which was subsequently postponed to 1 September. While the charge of criminal nuisance was dropped and Mr. Kurauone was finally freed following his acquittal of obstructing free movement of traffic on 10 September, he still faces the charge of undermining the authority of the President, due to defying lockdown rules in order to distribute food in Masvingo.
Facing multiple and politically-motivated charges and unjustified delays in his judicial process, Godfrey Kurauone’s case is emblematic of the harassment to which many civil society members, journalists, political opponents, human rights activists, and lawyers, are subjected to in Zimbabwe since the country recorded its first Covid-19 case on 20 March, and particularly since 30 March, when President Emerson Mnangagwa declared a state of disaster and decreed a national lockdown. While the government lockdown has been extended indefinitely, human rights violations have steadily increased, suggesting that the government is using Covid-19 as a cover for violating fundamental freedoms and attacking perceived opponents.
Against a backdrop of strong dissatisfaction with the management of the health crisis, there has been a spike in violations of fundamental rights and civil liberties since Zimbabwe’s lockdown was put in place. Our organisations have documented abductions, arbitrary arrests, and police brutality by law enforcement officers against civil society representatives, including political opponents, journalists, human rights activists and others who speak up against the government. Prosecution is being used as a tool to silence dissents who speak out against the State's response.
Between 30 March and 9 August, ZimRights documented 820 human rights violations, including 511 arbitrary arrests, 278 assaults by state agents, 20 attacks on journalists, 4 abductions, two gunshot assaults, one dog bite and four suspected extrajudicial killings. Our organisations’ analysis of these cases reveals a trend of human rights violations consisting of acts aiming to morally exhaust, silence, punish, impoverish, sometimes physically injure the targeted individuals, and exposing them to the risk of contracting the virus while arbitrarily detained in prisons.
Such harassment usually begins with hate speech from senior political leaders or state controlled media, and arbitrary arrests by police, in a context of discontent and denunciation of corruption—practices that exist in normal times in Zimbabwe. Escalations of harassment can involve arbitrary detention, often without access to a lawyer, doctor, or family, and hearings repeatedly postponed by the judge. Requests for release are often repeatedly denied, and if the person is finally released on bail, he or she may still be charged and subjected to restrictive measures (confiscation of passports, weekly police check-ins, and restrictions of fundamental freedoms).
Our organisations denounce the Zimbabwean authorities’ harassment of several members of civil society in Zimbabwe, including journalists, activists, and political opponents, and call on the former to put an end to this harassment and to refrain from abusing their state of disaster powers to arbitrarily restrict civil liberties and fundamental rights.
These violations occur against a backdrop of severe restrictions linked to the fight against the pandemic, but also in the context of economic and social crises.
Zimbabwe’s economic situation remains dire, with prices of basic commodities beyond the reach of many citizens. Inflation is at an all-time high, eroding the wages of professionals below the poverty datum line. As a result, civil servants, particularly in the health sector, have engaged in industrial action, which unfortunately has been ignored by the government. Despite donations provided by local and international donors, the Covid-19 response and preparedness in Zimbabwe remains very weak. There have been allegations of looting of Covid-19 funds under corrupt schemes, depriving the intended beneficiaries. Nurses and other health personnel work in extremely difficult conditions without personal protective equipment (PPE), hence many of them have contracted Covid-19 and remain in isolation.
Godfrey Kurauone’s arrest was part of a wave of arrests of the alleged leaders of the July 31st Movement, which has demonstrated against corruption in recent weeks. His name appeared on a list issued by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) including activists they wanted to “interview” about these events. Over 33 people were arrested in relation with the July 31st protest, including Job Sikhala, an opposition MP from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and lawyer, whose bail hearing has been postponed to 11 September. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has already denounced several such cases, including those of investigative journalist Mr. Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Mr. Jacob Ngarivhume, their human rights lawyer, Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa, three members of MDC opposition party, namely Ms. Cecilia Chimbiri, Ms. Netsai Marova and Ms. Joana Mamombe, who were sexually abused and tortured, Ms. Tsitsi Dangarembga, a figure of African feminism and award-winning novelist, and Mr. Gamuchirai Mukura, Executive Director of Community Tolerance Reconciliation and Development (COTRAD), a youth-oriented registered non-governmental organisation.