Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Activists

Netsai Mushonga

Map of Zimbabwe. (Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)

Netsai Mushonga, media coordinator of the Women's Coalition, an umbrella body of women's rights groups in Zimbabwe, says she is angry with the law and system of governance in Zimbabwe.

In the first week of November 2005, security agents subjected her to 50 hours detention for organizing a weekend workshop for church leaders and training them in using non-violence as a tool for dispute resolution. The workshop also was intended to raise awareness of non-violence and methods of non-violent civic protest as alternatives to the culture of violence that is prevalent in Zimbabwe.

She says the workshop was successful and oversubscribed: "we got people talking of injustice and violence in their community and how they can overcome these non-violently."

The workshop also marked the start of Mushonga's ordeal because a day after the workshop had ended security agents were making intimidating telephone calls to those who had attended the workshop. The security agents wanted to know who had organized the workshop, what it was about and what was discussed in it.

They later phoned Mushonga and asked her to present herself at the Harare Central Police Station.

"The police stressed that it was to my advantage to cooperate with the police," she says.

On Nov. 7, Mushonga reported to the Harare Central Police Station as she had been instructed. She was surprised to find the whole section had been waiting for her.

She was taken into an office that looked like a reception room and asked if she had been responsible for organizing the workshop. They told her that the workshop had been a political one and that she should therefore have informed the police in advance as dictated by the Public Order and Security Act (P.O.S.A.).

P.O.S.A. was made into law in January 2002 and is one of the most extensive and repressive pieces of legislation in Zimbabwe. The Act is most commonly used against the normal activities of journalists, civil society bodies, trade unions and opposition political parties.

Sections 24 to 31 of the Act lay down conditions for the holding of public gatherings. Anyone who wishes to organize a public gathering must notify the police four days in advance (sec. 24). The police may then place restrictions on the gathering (sec. 25) or prohibit it entirely (sec. 26) if they have "reasonable grounds for believing" the gathering will result in public disorder, a breach of the peace or obstruction of any thoroughfare. The organizers of a gathering are required to "notify" the police; the section does not state that the police must "give permission."

These provisions are regularly misunderstood or deliberately misapplied by the police who have raided private houses where clearly private meetings have been taking place, and broken up consultative trade union meetings. The police have even been found sitting in on ordinary leadership workshops of the opposition party. At one point, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions had to obtain a High Court order barring the police from attending their executive committee meeting.

Section 26 of the Act has been ruthlessly applied within the definitions to prevent opposition to the Zimbabwe government from organizing and even to prevent sitting opposition political party M.P.s and councilors from holding report-back meetings with their constituents.

Although Mushonga explained that the meeting was about peace and non-violence, the police insisted the meeting was political because it discussed the history of Zimbabwe.

"They seemed worried that we mentioned Gukurahundi," she says.

Gukurahundi, which means "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains," is a euphemism used to describe the killing of an estimated 20,000 civilians by President Robert G. Mugabe's Fifth Brigade military unit in the Zimbabwe provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the early to late 1980's.

The police detained Mushonga until late in the evening before releasing her and telling her to return to the station the next day.

On Nov. 8, she went back to the Harare Central Police Station as she had been instructed.

Narrating her ordeal on, an online community for Zimbabwean activists, Mushonga says when she arrived at the station she was led through corridors to the offices of Zimbabwe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.).

After four hours in the custody of the C.I.O., one of the operatives informed her that under P.O.S.A. the police have a right to be informed of any gathering, including even birthday parties and church gatherings, and that she can get a lawyer if she wants one. The C.I.O. took three copies of her fingerprints; charged her with holding a public gathering without informing the police, and locked her up in a holding cell for two nights.

She gives a poignant and now all too familiar account of the terrible conditions under which Zimbabwe's human rights activists are kept when they are in police custody. She shared a cell with 10 other prisoners. The cell approximately measured six meters by six meters. The toilet did not flush and the prisoners used a newspaper to cover the excrement in an attempt to make the stench more bearable. The 10 prisoners had to share three lice-ridden blankets.

"With my short-sleeve blouse, I cannot take the lice bites and resolve to spread my newspaper on the floor and sleep there.

"After turning and tossing forever, sometimes just sitting up straight since the floor is cold, dawn finally comes," she says.

During her incarceration, she became angrier and angrier by the minute.

"Why am I in prison? Did I hurt anyone? But I can't be angry at the police either. One of them took away my newspaper and spent five minutes apologizing and explaining why he has to do it," she says.

When Mushonga was released from custody on Nov. 10, the police told her they would be preparing a docket and later send her a summons to appear in court. Her lawyer, however, told her that she had been released because the attorney general's office had thrown out the case. There had been no case to start with and the police therefore had to release her after the mandatory 48 hours.

Mushonga describes her mood as she was going home:

"I feel angry. A fire has been ignited deep inside me. I expect that people around me, my friends and colleagues, would be angry with me but they are not. They are angry with the law and the system. They also realize I have been a victim. It's one thing to talk of injustices; it is another to be a direct victim. I now know what P.O.S.A. means. I now know about unlawful arrests and detentions. Non-violence principle number four has taught me that unearned suffering is strengthening."

Sokwanele, a Zimbabwean civic action group, says the Public Order and Security Act of 2002 remains in force and is for purely political ends — to keep ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) in power.

"P.O.S.A. has indeed inhibited both political opposition and civil society from organizing mass protests against government policies and the effects of economic collapse. Normal political organizing, meetings and campaigns have been obstructed. While many brave leaders are prepared to defy what they see as an unjust law, the rest of the community is thoroughly cowed by the prospect of becoming victims of police action.

"Even the threat of arrest is terrifying in light of the inhuman conditions in police cells and the risk of torture at the hands of sadistic, politicized police officers, both uniformed and non-uniformed," Sokwanele says.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights, a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture, described Mushonga's arrest as arbitrary and said it violated the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 9, 1998, in particular articles 5(a), which states that "for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels to meet and assemble peacefully."

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