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Zimbabwe: Eight women arrested after handing out teddy bears and roses in peaceful protest

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Eight members of Zimbabwean women’s social justice movement, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), were arrested outside the Zimbabwean parliament in Harare on Wednesday after they handed out roses and teddy bears during their annual Valentine’s Day demonstration.  This attack on peaceful protesters has sparked fears that Zimbabwe may not be able to hold a credible constitutional referendum and election this year, warned Amnesty International.

The women, who included WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu were arrested after police fired tear gas at the peaceful demonstration and beat protestors with baton sticks. Police also arrested a man who took a picture of the women being arrested. They were later released without charge.

The arrests coincided with the government’s announcement that 16 March had been set as a tentative date for the constitutional referendum and that elections could be held sometime in July.

Amnesty International’s southern Africa director Noel Kututwa:

“This most recent incident sounds yet another alarm bell for the exercise of internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in advance of the referendum on a new constitution and elections later this year.

“Human rights violations by the police, including arbitrary arrests and raids at offices of human rights defenders, go against the calls for tolerance made by President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai.”

In recent months Amnesty has documented a series of arbitrary arrests and raids targeted at key human rights groups suggesting the space for political dissent is narrowing as the country prepares for the referendum and election.

Noel Kututwa said:
“Zimbabwe is entering a critical period in its democratisation process and these blatant attempts to silence and intimidate critics must end.” 

On Monday police raided the office of the Zimbabwean Peace Project (ZPP) in Harare. Five police officers stormed the ZPP office with a warrant to search for ‘“subversive material and illegal immigrants”.  No one was arrested during the incident but police seized equipment and confidential documents.

In an apparent violation of the search warrant police returned to the ZPP offices at night and attempted to search the offices for the second time. The warrant only authorised the police to search the offices by day time.

Okay Machisa, the director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) was finally released on bail on 29 January after two weeks in custody when the High Court overruled an earlier dismissal of his bail application.

Leo Chamahwinya, another ZimRights employee, arrested on 13 December 2012 remains in custody and has been repeatedly denied bail.

The ZimRights staff activists are being charged with publishing falsehoods, fraud and forgery after allegedly conducting illegal voter registration.

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