Zimbabwe: Harassment and intimidation as election looms

Opposition party members forced to chew and swallow posters

As Zimbabweans prepare to vote in national elections on Saturday 29 March, Amnesty International today (26 March) warned that the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly of opposition party supporters are being unnecessarily restricted.

Amnesty International’s Zimbabwe researcher, Simeon Mawanza, has recently returned from Zimbabwe. He said:

“We continue to receive reports of intimidation, harassment and violence against perceived supporters of opposition candidates – with many in rural regions fearful that there will be retribution after the elections.”

On 7 March, three members of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were putting up election posters in Bulawayo when operatives from Zimbabwe’s national intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), ordered the group to pull the posters down.

The CIO operatives forced one of the men in the group to chew the posters and swallow them. A woman in the group was then forced to chew and swallow three-quarters of a poster. The three were allowed to go when the CIO officials had to go to a political rally.

Simeon Mawanza continued:

“Police in some parts of the country are clearly putting unnecessary restrictions on the activities of the opposition party members, while allowing supporters of the ruling party total enjoyment of their rights.”

On or around 10 March, in Plumtree, five people involved in a rally addressed by Dr. Simba Makoni, an independent presidential candidate, were briefly detained at Plumtree police station. They were released without charge after Dr. Makoni intervened.

Food is still being used as a political tool by ruling party functionaries in many rural areas. Perceived supporters of opposition candidates and political parties continue to be discriminated against, mostly in accessing the cheaper maize sold by the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB), which manages the country’s strategic grain reserves.

Last month, an MDC (Tsvangirai faction) councillor in Lupane district was allegedly prevented from collecting 235 bags of maize that had been bought by his community from the GMB. The senior ruling party official reportedly told GMB officials that “GMB maize is not supposed to be distributed to MDC supporters.”

Although the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) were amended in January 2008, ostensibly to protect the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, restrictions still exist. Police also appear to be applying provisions of the old POSA.

Mawanza said:

“Application of the POSA is motivated by a desire to frustrate the activities of perceived political opponents.

“Civil society organisations are operating under constant surveillance by state security organisations – including the police. Surveillance tactics include intelligence operatives sitting in meetings and visiting offices to question staff and guests of the organisations. This type of harassment and intimidation has made the work of human rights organisations extremely difficult at the moment.”

On 21 March eight members of the activist organisation Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were briefly held by police in Bulawayo’s suburb of Pumula while putting up posters encouraging people to go and vote. The eight Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights were taken to Pumula police station, where they were questioned for about 30 minutes and then released without charge.

Civil society organisations and opposition parties and candidates also face difficulties in accessing state-controlled radio and television stations. There are currently no privately-owned daily newspapers in Zimbabwe, and no private radio station has been granted a licence.

Amnesty International urged Zimbabwean police to respect the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly of all candidates and civil society organisations going about their legitimate work during and after the election period.

Mawanza said:

“The police should ensure that all Zimbabweans are allowed to engage in peaceful protest before and during the elections, and must desist from using excessive force, torture or other inhuman and degrading treatment. The police should also investigate all reports of violence and intimidation and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Amnesty International also called on the heads of security organisations to desist from making comments that can fuel election violence.

Recent statements by some security chiefs including the commissioner-general of police, the head of the prison services and army commander that they would not recognise an opposition candidate winning the election has increased the population’s anxiety.

Simeon Mawanza continued:

“Security chiefs should all operate in a non-partisan manner and protect the rights of all citizens. The conduct of the state security organisations – irrespective of the outcome of the election – will be crucial in safeguarding the rights of all Zimbabweans in the post-election period.”

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