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Zimbabwe: A new constitution, a new way?

It’s been a historic week for Zimbabwe as President Mugabe signed a new constitution into law, a positive development that has the potential to increase ordinary Zimbabwean's enjoyment of their basic rights. The constitution paves the way for reform of laws such as the Public Order and Security act, which has been used by security forces to target human rights defenders and other activists who tirelessly speak up for the rights of others.

This new constitution also paves the way for the upcoming elections, following more than four years of a coalition government between President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and Morgan Tsvangirai’s rival MDC party.

The elections will be a critical time, and Zimbabwe knows that the world is watching. At Amnesty we stand alongside those who are calling for elections free from violence and intimidation. As an activist I find the idea that I could be beaten, arrested and even tortured for speaking up for my own rights or the rights of others astounding and appalling, but you don’t have to look far back into Zimbabwe’s history to understand the vital importance of reform.

There has been an increase in human rights violations in Zimbabwe since the political crisis started in 2000, which led to millions fleeing the country to escape political persecution and economic hardship. In 2008, more than 200 people were killed in state-sponsored violence during the second round of the presidential elections, with a further 10,000 injured.

This violence was mostly conducted by security forces, war veterans and ZANU-PF supporters. Torture and ill-treatment of those opposed to President Mugabe’s party was widely reported, and Zimbabweans working to support human rights were arbitrarily arrested, detained, beaten, tortured and had their offices raided.

The new constitution brings with it the hope of millions of Zimbabweans that it will usher in a new political order where human rights are respected and protected, and in the long-term I hope this will be the case. But in the short-term, there have been worrying signs of another crackdown on human rights defenders ahead of the upcoming elections. A number of prominent activists have been arrested, offices raided and there’s been a ban on shortwave radios, in an apparent attempt to restrict access to alternative sources of news.

Monday’s trial of the prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa is another example of an attack on the human rights defender community. Back in March, Beatrice responded to the call of a client - a staff member of Morgan Tsvangirai’s office. When she arrived at his home, police were conducting a search. She asked to be shown the search warrant and told police what they were doing was “unlawful, unconstitutional, illegal and undemocratic”. The police didn’t show her a search warrant, and instead arrested her for “obstructing the course of justice”.

Acting directly against a ruling of the High Court, Beatrice was detained in prison for eight nights before she was  released on bail. Beatrice is an excellent example of the strength and determination of those who speak out against the injustices perpetrated by people in power. But this is also an indication of what could happen more frequently during the elections and the fears of many, us included, are that there could be a repeat of the horrors of 2008. So on Monday we’ll be standing in solidarity with Beatrice, but we’ll also be campaigning for the upcoming election to be free from violence and fear. Stand with us and add your voice to this call.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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