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Zimbabwe: Upcoming election to take place against backdrop of 'brutal' human rights crackdowns

Image shows a crowd of Citizens Coalition for Change supporters gathering during an electoral rally in March 2022
Supporters of the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change gather during an electoral rally in March 2022 © AFP/Getty Images

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has relentlessly suppressed rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly

Crackdown on protest organisers, journalists, political opposition and human rights activists

Recently signed ‘Patriotic Act’ includes loss of citizenship, denial of the right to vote and the death penalty

‘As political campaigning enters full swing, the authorities must ensure that people are able to freely exercise their rights’ - Khanyo Farisè

Zimbabwe’s upcoming general election will take place in the context of five years of systematic, brutal crackdowns on human rights - including recent restrictions on political opposition gatherings, the violent suppression of protests and the criminalisation of state critics, Amnesty International said today, ahead of the vote on 23 August.

Over the past five years, the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have been relentlessly suppressed under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rule. Amid a sustained crackdown against those who have demanded government accountability or organised protests, journalists, members of the political opposition and human rights activists have all been targeted.

Most recently, President Emmerson Mnangagwa signed the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill, 2022 – more widely known as the “Patriotic Bill” - into law to further criminalise dissent. The penalties outlined in the act include loss of citizenship, denial of the right to vote and even the death penalty.

Khanyo Farisè, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa, said:

“What we have seen in Zimbabwe over the past five years amounts to a brutal crackdown on human rights - especially the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The police have repeatedly resorted to excessive use of force to suppress these human rights.

“The country’s socio-economic situation has also declined dramatically, leaving many people in abject poverty with no means to put food on the table.

“As political campaigning enters full swing, the authorities must ensure that people are able to freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

“Authorities must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the human rights of everyone before, during and after the election.”

Systematically stamping out dissent

The Zimbabwean authorities have increasingly targeted leaders of the political opposition, journalists and activists for exposing allegations of corruption or demanding accountability.

Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent journalist who investigated a multimillion-dollar Covid-19-related corruption case, and Jacob Ngarivhume, a political activist who called for a nationwide protest in reaction to allegations of government corruption in July 2020, were arrested and detained in a bid to silence them.

Chin’ono was jailed in November 2020, in part for exposing the actions of a woman who tried to smuggle undeclared gold through the Robert Mugabe International Airport, and the alleged looting of Government funds by people with political connections during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a clear attack on Chin’ono, the court barred his lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from representing him.  After several appeals, the High Court eventually acquitted Hopewell Chin’ono.

Ngarivhume is serving a four-year jail sentence after he was convicted and sentenced in April for calling for nationwide protests against government corruption.

In May this year, Job Sikhala, a member of the main opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), was convicted on charges of “obstructing justice” and handed a six-month suspended sentence. Sikhala’s trial related to a video shared online in which he was accused of saying that the ruling Zanu-PF party had killed Moreblessing Ali, a CCC activist, in June 2022. Sikhala, who has been detained since June 2022, denied making the video and an expert witness testified in court that the footage had been tampered with.

In September last year, Zimbabwean author and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga and fellow protester Julie Barnes were each convicted of “inciting violence” after participating in the 31 July 2020 protests against economic hardship and handed a fine of 70,000 Zimbabwean dollars (around £165).  They were each handed a six-month suspended sentence, yet later successfully challenged their sentence in court.

On 10 June 2020, three ex-Movement for Democratic Change Alliance youth leaders – now members of the main opposition CCC party - Joana Mamombe, Cecillia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, were arrested and charged with falsifying their abduction and torture at the hands of suspected state security agents. The trio were abducted after the police arrested them at a roadblock in Warren Park during a protest against the country’s poor socio-economic situation at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. They were prosecuted at the time but were acquitted earlier this month, except from Netsai Marova, who went into exile before the trial concluded.

Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly curtailed

President Emerson Mnangagwa’s rise to power comes against the background of protester killing following post-election violence on 1 August 2018. Six people were killed and 35 were injured after soldiers fired live ammunition at those fleeing the protests in Harare.

The protesters had demanded that official election results be released. Some of those killed and injured were shot in the back, yet five years later, no one has been held accountable. And despite the establishment of a commission to probe the circumstances that led to the killings, no justice has been served.

On 16 August 2018, baton-wielding police mounted a vicious assault on peaceful protesters who had gathered in Harare in anticipation of national protests against the worsening socio-economic conditions in the country. Scores of people were left injured following the crackdown.

The day before the march, Zimbabwean police announced they were banning the protests through a press statement, saying the demonstrations would turn violent. After the aborted protest, about 128 activists were arrested and placed on remand. Other protests that were planned to take place in four other cities around the country were also banned and some activists were arrested.

In another escalation of violence at the beginning of 2019, Amnesty International documented at least 15 killings by police when nationwide protests erupted on 14 January, sparked by fuel price hikes.

The authorities arrested hundreds of people, including prominent activists who were suspected of being behind the protests, on charges including public violence. By the end of April of that year, close to 400 people had been convicted by the courts - most of them through hastily conducted trials.

During the protests, the police used lethal and excessive force such as tear gas, batons, water cannons and live ammunition. They also launched a house-to-house hunt to track down and apprehend the protest organisers as well as other prominent civil society leaders and activists. Those arrested included Evan Mawarire, a well-known local cleric and activist, and trade union leader Peter Mutasa, who were subjected to trumped-up treason charges in connection with the protests. The authorities also charged 22 people in relation to the protests for attempting to “subvert” a constitutional government.

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