Zimbabwe: Prominent human rights defender hunted down through the media

An alert issued last night by the Zimbabwe police on state television which implied a prominent human rights defender, Jestina Mukoko, was on the run from the law is a new low in the recent crackdown on dissent ahead of next Saturday’s referendum, Amnesty International said.

Zimbabwe state-owned television ran two announcements about Mukoko, the Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, and urged members of the public to call the police with any information about her whereabouts.

Mukoko, who was at her home when the announcements were made, voluntarily reported to Harare Central Police station this morning. She was charged with several offences, including ‘operating a private voluntary organisation without registration’, before being released into the custody of her lawyers.

Amnesty International’s southern Africa director Noel Kututwa, said:

“It is appalling that at this critical time when Zimbabwe is in the process of adopting a new constitution which provides a stronger bill of human rights, human rights defenders are coming under systematic attack.

“The use of state media to publically portray Mukoko as some kind of fugitive is a regrettable new low for the government.

“This pattern of repressive behaviour by Zimbabwe’s security forces, and the use of underhand tactics to incriminate human rights defenders, must end.

“The referendum scheduled for next weekend and the elections that follow must take place in an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

A constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe is due to take place on Saturday 16 March and an election is likely to follow in July.  In the run-up to the referendum and election, the government has amplified a crackdown on criticism and dissent. The crackdown has included a ban on short-wave radio receivers, in an apparent attempt to curb access to alternative sources of news.

Despite being charged with several counts including ‘operating a private voluntary organisation without registration’ under the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, the Zimbabwe Peace Project is registered under a deed of trust with the High Court like most other human rights groups in Zimbabwe.

Early in February, the Zimbabwe Peace Project was raided by police who had a warrant to search for ‘subversive material and illegal immigrants’. They seized material including project documents, four smart phones and 80 solar-powered or crank radio receivers. On the 20 February, the Zimbabwe Peace Project was classified a 'threat to state security’.

Around the time of the last elections, in 2008, three Zimbabwe Peace Project staff members, including Jestina Mukoko, were abducted by men believed to be state security agents. Mukoko was tortured during her detention.

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